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The American Adam 

Here's for the plain old Adam, the simple genuine 
self against the whole world. 

R. W. EMERSON, Journals 

That is the true myth of America. She starts old, 
old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And 
there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, to- 
wards a new youth. It is the myth of America. 

1). H. LAWRENCE, Studies in Classical 
American Literature 

This is the use of memory: 
For liberation not less of love, but ex- 

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation 
From the future as well as the past. 

T. S. KLIOT, Little Gidding 

The American Adam 


Tragedy and Tradition 
in the Nineteenth Century 

R. W. B. Lewis 


Library of Congress Catalog Number: 55-5133 

Cambridge University Press, London, N.W. I, England 
The University of Toronto Press, Toronto 5, Canada 

Copyright 1955 by The University of Chicago. The 
University of Chicago^ 1955. All rights reserved. Copyright 
under the International Copyright Union, 7955. Published 
*955* Composed and printed by THE UNIVERSITY OF 
CHICAGO PRESS, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. 


Leicester Crosby Lewis 


Ar EARLIER version of this book was completed under the auspices 
of the Committee on Social Thought of the University of 
Chicago. It is a pleasure to record my appreciation of that committee 
in particular, of Daniel J. Boorstin and John U. Nef for consider- 
able guidance and encouragement and for an enlightened program of 
graduate studies. 

Many persons have read all or parts of the manuscript. I remember 
with special gratitude the generous assistance of Daniel Aaron, 
Newton Arvin, Elizabeth Drew, Joseph Frank, Stanley Edgar 
Hyman, Alfred Kazin, and Murray Kempton. My former students 
at Smith College, Bennington College, and the Salzburg Seminar in 
American Studies have contributed more than they may have 

My debt to F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance will be evi- 
dent on many pages; more important and less evident is a debt to the 
man himself, to a wise and dedicated teacher and an unforgettable 

Other contributions are harder to define, though one is conscious 
of them in a dozen places. The chapter on Melville, for example, 
profited belatedly from conversations with Howard Nemerov; and 
reflected in my treatment of Parkman are several talks with Howard 
Doughty, whose own book on Parkman is the one many of us are 
waiting for. 

In the closing phases of the book I was lucky to have the invaluable 
help of Mrs. Margaret Kelton Lindau. I shall not try to say what I 
owe to my wife: it is of too long standing, and runs too deep. 

Parts of some of the chapters have appeared in Yale Review^ Hudson 
Review, and American Literature and are reprinted with the permis- 
sion of those periodicals. Permission to quote from T. S. Eliot's Four 
Quartets has been granted by Harcourt, Brace and Company, and 
from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake by the Viking Press. 


July 1955 


Table of Contents 

















INDEX 203 

The Myth and the Dialogue 

THIS book has to do with the beginnings and the first tentative 
outlines of a native American mythology. The period I cover runs 
from about 1820 to 1860; the scene, for the most part, is New England 
and the Atlantic seaboard. The cast of characters is large, and would 
be a great deal larger if every person were included who, by act or 
utterance, contributed to the formation of the American myth. But 
I am not concerned with matters of anthropology and sociology, or 
with folklore and legend; nor am I primarily concerned with the psy- 
chology of myth, any more than with the facts of economic geography 
and political history. I am interested rather in the history of ideas and, 
especially, in the representative imagery and anecdote that crystal- 
lized whole clusters of ideas; my interest is therefore limited to articu- 
late thinkers and conscious artists. A century ago, the image contrived 
to embody the most fruitful contemporary ideas was that of the au- 
thentic American as a figure of heroic innocence and vast potentiali- 
ties, poised at the start of a new history. This image is the title of the 

It was an image crowded with illusion, and the moral posture it 
seemed to indorse was vulnerable in the extreme. But however vul- 
nerable or illusory, this image had about it always an air of adven- 
turousness, a sense of promise and possibility of a sort no longer very 
evident in our national expression. Its very openness to challenge, its 
susceptibility to controversy, made possible a series of original in- 
quiries and discoveries about human nature, art, and history. I shall 
have many an occasion to comment on the present relevance of the 
Adamic myth. But here I should introduce the terminology and 
method I shall employ. 

I want, first, to suggest an analogy between the history of a culture 
or of its thought and literature and the unfolding course of a dia- 
logue: a dialogue more or less philosophic in nature and, like Plato's, 
containing a number of voices. Every culture seems, as it advances 
toward maturity, to produce its own determining debate over the 

The American Adam 

ideas that preoccupy it: salvation, the order of nature, money, power, 
sex, the machine, and the like. The debate, indeed, may be said to be 
the culture, at least on its loftiest levels; for a culture achieves identity 
not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convic- 
tions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogue. 
(Similarly, a culture is on the decline when it submits to intellectual 
martial law, and fresh understanding is denied in a denial of further 
controversy.) Intellectual history, properly conducted, exposes not 
only the dominant ideas of a period, or of a nation, but more impor- 
tant, the dominant clashes over ideas. Or to put it more austerely: the 
historian looks not only for the major terms of discourse, but also for 
major pairs of opposed terms which, by their very opposition, carry 
discourse forward. The historian looks, too, for the coloration or dis- 
coloration of ideas received from the sometimes bruising contact of 

As he does so and as he examines the personalities and biases of the 
men engaged in debate at any given historical moment, the historian 
is likely to discover that the development of the culture in question 
resembles a protracted and broadly ranging conversation: at best a 
dialogue a dialogue which at times moves very close to drama. 1 

In America, during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, 
the chief intellectual spokesmen novelists and poets, as well as es- 
sayists, critics, historians, and preachers appear to have entered into 
just such a lively and creative dialogue. The subject, stimulated by 
the invigorating feeling that a new culture was in the making, touched 
on the moral, intellectual, and artistic resources of man in the new 
society. Whatever else they may have been talking about, all inter- 
ested persons seem invariably to have been talking about that. And 
in the perspective of history, they give the impression of talking to 
and about one another within separate fields of activity and across 
them. Historians, telling of the past, at the same time illuminated or 
contradicted the imagery of contemporary novelists; novelists en- 
acted or challenged, in their stories, the patterns of experience pro- 
posed by theologians, the focus in all these cases being the peculiar 
capacities of the inhabitant of the new world. Among the terms and 
ideas that turned up most frequently in the debate were: innocence, 
novelty, experience, sin, time, evil, hope, the present, memory, the 
past, tradition. Almost any one of them can be found, in the docu- 

1. An excellent example of intellectual history seizing upon the dialectical and 
dramatic qualities of its subject has been the volumes on the New England mind by 
Perry Miller. 


ments of the day, paired off with or against almost any other; and 
there were consequently many changes of coloration and many un- 
expected conclusions. The shifting weight of emphasis and import is 
too rapid for accurate analysis; but these are some of the main ideas 
with which this book is concerned. It is one of my aims to account 
for the dialogue that emerged as those ideas were invoked by Ameri- 
can writers and speakers, from 1820 onward, in their contentious 
effort to define the American character and the life worth living. 

But the purpose of a cultural conversation, to judge from our 
American example, is not, after all, simply to settle the terms of dis- 
cussion. It goes beyond that to provide materials for the creative 
imagination. The intellectual historian should accordingly look beyond 
the terms of discussion for something else. He should, in fact, look for 
the images and the "story" that animate the ideas and are their 
imaginative and usually more compelling equivalent. For what is ar- 
ticulated during the years of debate is a comprehensive view of life, 
in an ideal extension of its present possibilities. And while the vision 
may be formulated in the orderly language of rational thought, it also 
finds its form in a recurring pattern of images ways of seeing and 
sensing experience and in a certain habitual story, an assumed dra- 
matic design for the representative life. (The Passion of Christ, for 
example, is the story behind most Christian argumentation.) The 
imagery and the story give direction and impetus to the intellectual 
debate itself; and they may sometimes be detected, hidden within the 
argument, charging the rational terms with unaccustomed energy. 
But the debate in turn can contribute to the shaping of the story; and 
when the results of rational inquiry are transformed into conscious and 
coherent narrative by the best-attuned artists of the time, the cul- 
ture has finally yielded up its own special and identifying "myth." 

The relation between idea and story is considered further, in the 
practical illustrations offered in this book. This much can be said in 
advance: the narrative art inevitably and by nature invests its in- 
herited intellectual content with a quickening duplicity; it stains ideas 
with restless ambiguity. For the experience of the aims and values of 
an epoch is apt to be more complex and even more painful than the 
simple statement of them; and narrative deals with experiences, not 
with propositions. The narrative art, moreover, dramatizes as hu- 
man conflict what is elsewhere a thoughtful exchange of ideas; and 
art projects in a single packed dramatic image conflicting prin- 

The American Adam 

ciples which the discursive mind must contemplate separately and 

Perhaps the rather narrow context in which I am using words like 
"myth" and "mythology" can be explained by citing an instance from 
classical culture. The Roman myth received its final magnificent and 
persuasive form in the Aeneid of Virgil. The Aeneid^ however, was 
unmistakably a dramatization on a vast scale of the humanistic ideas 
set forth and debated in the philosophical dialogues of Cicero, two or 
three decades earlier. Cicero, in his turn, had only brought together 
the conflicting opinions of the contemporary schools of thought; and 
these opinions reflected an earlier imaginative feeling about the limits 
and aims of human experience. Cicero discovered the dialogue of his 
generation. It became the matter for the myth consciously created by 
Virgil: an essentially political myth, the myth of "the city" or "the 
republic"; a vision of life as shaped and bounded by the />0//V, with all 
other human concerns (love, for example, or scientific investigation) 
subordinated to the political and moral. And what Virgil was able to 
do in his mythical narrative of the origins of the city was, as one his- 
torian has observed, to provide the "dynamic [which] was needed in 
order to impart to Ciceronianism the vitality which it lacked." 2 But 
"the tears of things" so prevalent in the Aeneid reflect Virgil's poetic 
ambivalence toward the Roman ideals that his poem nonetheless 

My intention, then, is to disentangle from the writings and pro- 
nouncements of the day the emergent American myth and the dia- 
logue in which it was formed. The American myth, unlike the Roman, 
was not fashioned ultimately by a single man of genius. It was and it 
has remained a collective affair; it must be pieced together out of an 
assortment of essays, orations, poems, stories, histories, and sermons. 
We have not yet produced a Virgil, not even Walt Whitman being 
adequate to that function. 8 Leaves of Grass (1855) did indeed set to a 
music of remarkable and original quality many attitudes that had 
been current for several decades as I indicate in my first two chap- 
ters. But Leaves of Grass is scarcely more than a bundle of lyrics which 

2. Charles N. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (Oxford, 1946). 

3. It is worth noting that the one poem which set out quite deliberately to provide 
America with its definitive myth Hart Crane's The Bridge (1930) was inspired at 
once by Whitman and Virgil. The Whitman strain is, of course, very evident through- 
out The Bridge; but Crane remarked in letters and conversations that his ambition was 
to do for his own age what Virgil had done for his, and that the Aeneid was the exem- 
plary poem. 



gives us only one phase of the story imbedded in the American re- 
sponse to life; to round it out, other writings had to follow. 4 

Unlike the Roman myth, too which envisaged life within a long, 
dense corridor of meaningful history the American myth saw life and 
history as just beginning. It described the world as starting up again 
under fresh initiative, in a divinely granted second chance for the 
human race, after the first chance had been so disastrously fumbled in 
the darkening Old World. It introduced a new kind of hero, the 
heroic embodiment of a new set of ideal human attributes. America, 
it was said insistently from the 1820's onward, was not the end-prod- 
uct of a long historical process (like the Augustan Rome celebrated in 
the Aeneid)\ it was something entirely new. "Our national birth/' 
declaimed the Democratic Review in 1839, "was the beginning of a new 
history . . . which separates us from the past and connects us with the 
future only." "American glory begins at the dawn," announced Noah 
Webster in 1825. Edward Everett found an acceptable prescription for 
national health in the simple italicized phrase, separation from Europe 
separation from its history and its habits. 

The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene were 
suggested by the image of a radically new personality, the hero of the 
new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily 
bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances 
of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self- 
propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his 
own unique and inherent resources. It was not surprising, in a Bible- 
reading generation, that the new hero (in praise or disapproval) was 
most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. Adam was the first, 
the archetypal, man. His moral position was prior to experience, and 
in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent. The world and 
history lay all before him. And he was the type of creator, the poet 
par excellence, creating language itself by naming the elements of the 
scene about him. All this and more were contained in the image of the 
American as Adam. 5 

4. More than one critic of Henry James has suggested that James's last three novels 
The Ambassadors y The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all published in the 
very early 1900's may be taken as a trilogy comprehending the totality of the dis- 
tinctively American vision of experience. 

5. Here, and occasionally later, I must distinguish between the notion of progress 
toward perfection and the notion of primitive Adamic perfection. Both ideas were cur- 
rent, and they overlapped and intertwined. On the whole, however, we may settle for 
the paradox that the more intense the belief in progress toward perfection, the more it 
stimulated a belief in a present primal perfection (see pp. 44 and 163). 

The American Adam 

Such were the first impulses which begot the myth. Such were the 
first fertile illusions. The changes they suffered and the further in- 
sights they elicited, as they were challenged, transcended, and drama- 
tized over the years, are precisely the burden of this study. But it is 
worth remarking that while the Adamic image was invoked often and 
explicitly in the later stages of our history, during earlier stages it re- 
mained somewhat submerged, making itself felt as an atmospheric 
presence, a motivating idea. It was the concealed cause of an ethical 
polemic, and it lurked behind the formal structure of works of fiction. 
The image was slow to work its way to the surface of American ex- 
pression; and the reader will notice that it tends to appear toward the 
end of sections or discussions in this book. The significant fact is that 
the literal use of the story of Adam and the Fall of Man as a model 
for narrative occurred in the final works of American novelists, the 
works in which they sought to summarize the whole of their experi- 
ence of America. The Marble Faun and Billy Buddy where the Adamic 
imagery is altogether central and controlling, were the last finished 
writings of Hawthorne and Melville. And it was in The Golden Bowl 
of Henry James that the protagonist's name was Adam. Those novels 
were perhaps as close as American culture ever came to the full and 
conscious realization of the myth it had so long secreted. 

It is also worth remarking that the ideal of newborn innocence was 
both rejoiced in and deplored. The opposed reactions set the dialogue 
in motion that later constituted the energizing conflict in narrative 
fiction. Emerson, recoiling from the sense of antique pressures in 
Europe, might voice the epochal remark: "Here's for the plain old 
Adam, the simple genuine self against the whole world/' But Henry 
James the elder, that formidable and explosive man, came back (in 
1857) with the contention that "nothing could be more remote . . . 
from distinctively human attributes . . . than this sleek and comely 
Adamic condition." This was not, in fact, an effort simply to repudiate 
the current mythology. James wanted rather to enrich it, by educat- 
ing his listeners in the fact and the value of tragedy, for, as he said, 
"Life flowers and fructifies out of the profoundest tragic depths." And 
just as the more optimistic moral principles were challenged and con- 
verted in the course of the dialogue, so the narrative figure of Adam 
introduced as the hero of a new semidivine comedy was converted 
into the hero of a new kind of tragedy, and grew thereby to a larger 
stature. It was the tragedy inherent in his innocence and newness, and 
it established the pattern for American fiction. 


This brings me to a final word about the several "voices" in our 
dialogue and the names I will give them. We might begin by noticing 
that Emerson saw no dialogue at all, but only a "schism," a split in 
culture between two polarized parties: "the party of the Past and the 
party of the Future," as he sometimes called them, or the parties "of 
Memory and Hope, of the Understanding and the Reason." The 
schism began, according to Emerson's retrospective meditation of 
1867, in about 1820. But Emerson subscribed too readily perhaps to 
a two-party system in intellectual affairs; and he was always puzzled 
by the attitude of a man like Hawthorne, who seemed skeptically 
sympathetic toward both parties and managed to be confined by 

Historians after Emerson have either gone along with his dichoto- 
mies and have talked about the "dualism" of American culture; or 
they have selected one of Emerson's two parties as constituting the 
American tradition, rejecting the other as a bleak foreign hangover 
or as immature native foolishness. But if we attend to the realities of 
American intellectual history, we must distinguish in it at least three 
voices (sometimes more). American culture has traditionally consisted 
of the productive and lively interplay of all three. 

In the chapters which follow, I adopt one of Emerson's pairs of 
terms to identify the two parties he himself recognized: the party of 
Hope and the party of Memory. For the third party, there is no 
proper name: unless we call it the party of Irony. 

As an index to the "hopeful" stand on national morality, I cite the 
editorial (of 1839) which hailed the birth in America of "a clear con- 
science unsullied by the past." The national and hence the individual 
conscience was clear just because it was unsullied by the past Ameri- 
ca, in the hopeful creed, had no past, but only a present and a future. 
The key term in the moral vocabulary of Emerson, Thoreau, Whit- 
man, and their followers and imitators consequently was "innocence." 
To the "nostalgic" that is, to the party devoted to Memory the 
sinfulness of man seemed never so patent as currently in America. As 
the hopeful expressed their mounting contempt for the doctrine of 
inherited sin, the nostalgic intoned on Sundays the fixed legacy of 
corruption in ever more emphatic accents; and centers of orthodox 
Calvinism, like Andover and Princeton, became citadels of the old 
and increasingly cheerless theology. But the ironic temperament as 
represented, say, by the elder Henry James was characterized by a 
tragic optimism: by a sense of the tragic collisions to which innocence 
was liable (something unthinkable among the hopeful), and equally 

The American Adam 

by an awareness of the heightened perception and humanity which 
suffering made possible (something unthinkable among the nostalgic). 

The debate over morality echoed the general debate over time: the 
connecting links, or the lack of them, between the present and the 
past. And in this respect the parties of Hope and of Memory virtually 
created each other. The human mind seems by nature to be "con- 
trary/* as by nurture it becomes dialectical. This was demonstrated 
afresh in early nineteenth-century America, when a denial of the past 
generated, by compensation, a new nostalgia, a new veneration for the 
past in its pastness. As the present and the future became objects of 
worship and inquiry, historical research began greatly to increase and 
the past to be discovered; there had been no need to discover it pre- 
viously, for it had never been lost. But now statistical guesses about 
the material growth of the new society were countered by the efforts 
of a Prescott to re-create the historical reality of the old societies. The 
prescription of Edward Everett (separation from Europe) cut both 
ways. It was steadily more difficult to decide which of the two conti- 
nents had been isolated; separation from Europe resulted in the first 
American expatriates.' 

Although Emerson listened with pleasure to "the clangor and 
jangle of contrary tendencies," there were those and I collect them 
under my third heading who found that constant discord unsatisfy- 
ing. This group inspected the opposed tendencies and then arrived at 
a fresh understanding of the nature of tradition and America's prac- 
tical involvement with the past. Their conclusion was a curious, am- 
bivalent, off-beat kind of traditionalism. It expressed itself in many 
forms, but it was particularly striking in the field of fiction. For here 
it affected both form and content: an organic relation between past 
experience and the living moment became a factor in narrative a 
recurring theme of narrative; and at the same time most notably in 
the novels of Hawthorne and Melville the narrative revealed its 
design through an original use of discredited traditional materials. 
And beyond fiction the resources of tradition, dispensed with by one 
sort of theologian in the name of religious freedom, were re-established 
by another as the essential means of human redemption. 

There may be no such thing as "American experience"; it is proba- 
bly better not to insist that there is. But there has been experience in 
America, and the account of it has had its own specific form. That 
form has been clearest and most rewarding when it has been most dia- 
lectical. Only recently has the dialogue tended to die away. For only 



recently has the old conviction of the new historical beginning seemed 
to vanish altogether, and with it the enlivening sense of possibility, of 
intellectual and artistic elbow-room, of new creations and fresh initia- 
tives. Our culture will at the very least be a great deal drearier with- 
out it. 

The dangers, both to life and to letters, of the Adamic ideal were 
acknowledged at once and have been repeated endlessly. The helpless- 
ness of mere innocence has been a primary theme of novelists in al- 
most every decade, and a source of bewilderment to our political and 
diplomatic historians. The dismissal of the past has been only too ef- 
fective: America, since the age of Emerson, has been persistently a 
one-generation culture. Successive generations have given rise to a 
series of staccato intellectual and literary movements with ever 
slighter trajectories. The temper which despised memory not unnatu- 
rally fostered a habit of forgetfulness, and writers who even forgot 
that there was anything to remember have found themselves remote 
alike from their predecessors and their contemporaries. The unluckiest 
consequence, however, has not been incoherence, but the sheer dulness 
of unconscious repetition. We regularly return, decade after decade 
and with the same pain and amazement, to all the old conflicts, pro- 
grams, and discoveries. We consume our powers in hoisting ourselves 
back to the plane of understanding reached a century ago and at 
intervals since. 

The vision of innocence and the claim of newness were almost peril- 
ously misleading. But they managed nonetheless to provide occasions 
for reflection and invention, for a testing of moral and artistic possi- 
bilities. The illusion of freedom from the past led to a more real rela- 
tion to the continuing tradition. The vision of innocence stimulated a 
positive and original sense of tragedy. Without the illusion, we are 
conscious, no longer of tradition, but simply and coldly of the burden 
of history. And without the vision, we are left, not with a mature 
tragic spirit, but merely with a sterile awareness of evil uninvigorated 
by a sense of loss. For the notion of original sin draws its compelling 
strength from the prior notion of original innocence. Recent literature 
has applauded itself for passing beyond the childlike cheerfulness of 
Emerson and Whitman; but, in doing so, it has lost the profound 
tragic understanding paradoxically bred out of cheerfulness of a 
Hawthorne or a Melville. 

A century ago, the challenge to debate was an expressed belief in 
achieved human perfection, a return to the primal perfection. Today 
the challenge comes rather from the expressed belief in achieved hope- 

The American Adam 

lessness. We stand in need of more stirring impulsions, of greater per- 
spectives and more penetrating controversies. Perhaps a review of that 
earlier debate can help us on our way. We can hardly expect to be 
persuaded any longer by the historic dream of the new Adam. But it 
can pose anew, in the classic way of illumination as it did in the 
American nineteenth century, the picture of what might be against 
the knowledge of what is, and become once more a stimulus to enter- 
prise and a resource for literature. 



The Danger of Innocence 

Prince, subject, father, son are things forgot 
For every man alone thinks he has got 
To be a Phoenix, and that then can be 
None of that kind, of which he is, but he. 

JOHN DONNE, First Anniversary 

O foenix culprit! ex nickylow malo comes micklemassed 

JAMES JOYCE, Finncgans Wake 


The Case against the Past 

Democracy ... is revolutionary, not formative. It is 
born of denial. It comes into existence in the way of deny- 
ing established institutions. Its office is rather to destroy 
the old world, than fully to reveal the new. 

HENRY JAMES, SR., "Democracy and Its Issues" (1853) 

IN THE decade following the end of the War of 1812, an air of 
hopefulness became apparent in American life and letters. It ex- 
pressed the sense of enormous possibility that Americans were be- 
ginning to share about the future of their new country; but hopeful- 
ness at the outset was combined with feelings of impatience and 
hostility. For believers in the future could not fail to notice, dotted 
across the American scene, many signs of the continuing power of the 
past: institutions, social practices, literary forms, and religious doc- 
trines carry-overs from an earlier age and a far country and irrele- 
vant obstructions (as it seemed) to the fresh creative task at hand. 
Emerson, tracing the haphazard movement for social reform in New 
England, remembered the "noise of denial and protest" which was the 
first symptom of the reformist spirit; "much was to be resisted," he 
said, "much was to be got rid of by those who were reared in the old, 
before they could begin to affirm and to construct." More vehement 
patriots even regretted that Americans were forced to communicate 
with one another in an old, inherited language. Indeed, the urge 
to root out vestiges of the culture and society of the Old World be- 
came so intense over the years that a commentator like the elder 
Henry James was led to identify democracy itself with a program of 
denial and destruction. 

Nothing was to be spared. Thus it was, according to one story, that 
a huge crowd of people gathered together on some broad western 
prairie to build an immense bonfire: a cosmic bonfire, upon which was 
piled all the world's "outworn trumpery." The heraldry of ancient 

The American Adam 

aristocratic families fed the flames, to the crowd's mounting enthusi- 
asm; after that came the robes and scepters of royalty; the scaffold 
and other symbols of repressive institutions; and finally the total 
body of European literature and philosophy. "Now," declared the 
chief celebrant, "we shall get rid of the weight of dead men's 

The story is a fantasy, to be sure a fantasy composed by Nathan- 
iel Hawthorne in 1844 and called "Earth's Holocaust." But it was 
close enough to history, and, like every good story, it was truer than 
history. Its theme may have been suggested by the historic activities 
of a religious group known as the "Millerites," though the Millerites 
were only among the more extreme and disappointed of the age's mil- 
lennialists. But Hawthorne, as usual, enlarged upon his historical 
materials; and, in doing so, he managed very accurately to catch in 
a fable the prevailing impulse to escape from every existing mode of 
organizing and explaining experience, in order to confront life in en- 
tirely original terms. And at the same time, in the divided attitude 
that gives his story its vital tension, Hawthorne managed to convey 
the deep reservations that certain Americans felt about the contem- 
porary passion to destroy. A genuine sympathy informs the irony and 
melancholy of "Earth's Holocaust"; but though one can tell from 
Hawthorne's notebooks that he too would have set fire to many sym- 
bols of injustice, he makes it clear at the end of his story that the true 
source of oppression the human heart has remained untouched by 
the conflagration: a conclusion Melville was to find at once profound 
and appalling. 

The drama of "Earth's Holocaust" has a ritual quality, and much 
of its dialogue is incantatory in tone. Behind the story, one sees such 
ritualistic historic events as the burning of the Bastille, and, beyond 
that, the recurring human instinct to purge by fire. Hawthorne had 
articulated the need he detected in the atmosphere of the day for a 
purgatorial action preceding, as it were, the life of the new Adam in 
the new earthly paradise. Thoreau, alert to the ritual aspects of hu- 
man behavior and the primitive energy of words, gave voice to the 
same instinctive need while he was reflecting on "the essential facts of 
life" at Walden Pond. He made semantic fun of a deacon whose dreary 
effects had been sold at auction: "Instead of a bonfire, or purifying de- 
struction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them." This 
private little joke led Thoreau to wonder whether the tribal customs 
of "some savage nations" might not be usefully instituted in America 
the ceremony of the "busk," for example, which he found described 

The Case against the Past 

in William Bartram's eighteenth-century travel-book: "When a town 
celebrates the busk . . . they have previously provided themselves 
with new clothes, new pots, pans, and other household utensils and 
furniture, they collect all their worn out clothes and other despicable 
things, sweep and cleanse their houses, squares and the whole town, 
of their filth, which with all the remaining grain and other old provi- 
sions they cast together into one common heap and consume it with 
fire." The whole viWalden^ according to one reading, is a metaphoric 
expansion of Bartram's busk the busk of the human spirit, when 
clothes and pots and pans are discarded as symbols of ambitions and 

But the rite of purification was more than a poetic invention. The 
need for it, in fact, had long been expressed in a series of concrete 
political and economic proposals, all of them voicing a belief in the 
need for periodic and radical change in the very structure of American 


The American argument against institutional continuity drew its 
force and its fervor from the native conviction about the rights of 
man. For the principle of the rights of man led to a restriction on the 
rights of men. In order to insure the freedoms of future men, those of 
the present (the argument ran) must have only temporary validity; 
and rights, consequently, were given a time limit. The constant in the 
argument was "the present generation," and the principle of judgment 
was the sovereignty of the living. 1 The principle had been formulated 
and flaunted in the writings of Jefferson and Paine; it helped to ease 
the painful break with the past that the political situation demanded. 
"The Creator," Jefferson pronounced, no doubt consciously echoing 
St. Matthew, "has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights 
and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere 
matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things." These 
are metaphysical statements: rights are attributed to that which can 
be said to be real; and the question of reality turns upon a dialectic of 
dead and living which is essentially biological. The author of that 
extraordinary contribution to natural history, Notes on Virginia^ was 
among the first to make natural history the queen of the sciences, the 
new metaphysic, and to turn the inquiry of reality into an investiga- 

1. See the study by Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New 
York, 1948), especially the chapter entitled "The Sovereignty of the Present Genera- 


The American Adam 

tion of natural processes. In the generation of hope, his logical suc- 
cessor was Oliver Wendell Holmes. 

Although we currently all too often employ a pious phrase about 
our heritage when we mention Thomas Jefferson, he himself was op- 
posed to several kinds of inheritance, finding them, in the name of the 
sovereign present, mere forms of slavery. He posed the general prob- 
lem in a letter written to Madison from Paris, in 1789: "The question, 
whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems 
never to have started on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a ques- 
tion of such consequence as not only to merit decision, but place, 
also, among the fundamental principles of government. ... I set out 
on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, 'that the earth belongs 
in usufruct to the living* ^ that the dead have neither power nor rights 
over it." Jefferson was even willing to calculate the approximate life- 
expectancy of any single generation: it amounted to about nineteen 
years. The arithmetic was applied. The devices by which society or- 
ders itself must be introduced and consented to by the living; hence 
legislation may not endure longer than the estimated life of the con- 
senting generation, and a complete review of all laws should be made 
every nineteen years. Such a policy would, of course, have meant 
periodic administrative chaos, and the proposal was not acted upon; 
though there was administrative chaos enough, as Tocqueville dis- 
covered. It was, however, administrative fear that operated against 
the proposal; an older argument against change in law, which consid- 
ered the effect of change on the stability of moral habits, scarcely en- 
tered the discussion; habit was already a term of abuse. 

Jefferson could not have foreseen, nor would he have approved, all 
the consequences of the principle of the sovereign present. He was at- 
tempting to make the practical controls of life dependent upon the 
voluntary agreement of the living. He did not mean to reject the whole 
scheme of values of the past, or to assert that each generation in turn 
should do so. And yet this is what was proposed, stage by stage, over 
the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829 the economic authority 
of the living was affirmed with some violence in a book called The 
Rights of Man to Property , Being a Proposition To Make It Equal 
among the Adults of the Present Generation. The author was one Thomas 
Skidmore, a leader in the Workingmen's movement in New York and 
Philadelphia and for a time a follower of Fanny Wright and the pro- 
gressive laborites. The reforms urged by Skidmore seemed extreme 
even to his associates; but his manner of reasoning was symptomatic 
of a deepening sense of the disjunction between generations. Skidmore 

The Case against the Past 

reflected the contemporary awareness, on which the first tentative 
efforts toward a labor movement were based, that, without equality 
of economic opportunity, the great phrases of the Declaration of Inde- 
pendence rang somewhat hollowly. In developing his thesis, Skidmore 
managed to attack the whole concept of inheritance. "If property is 
to descend to particular individuals from the previous generations, 
and if the many are born, having neither parents nor any one else, to 
give them property, equal in amount to that which the sons of the 
rich receive, from their fathers or other testators, how is it established 
that they are created equal?" Transmission in any kind from one 
generation to another was a fiction: "One generation cannot sell, give 
or convey, even if it had the right, to another. The reason is, that the 
one is dead; the other living. The one is present; the other absent. 
They do not and cannot meet y to come to a treaty, to make delivery; 
to give or receive." The terms "testator" and "heir" should be dis- 
pensed with, Skidmore went on; and the question to be answered was 
simply: "How long does a man own property ?" Skidmore's general 
principles were shared far beyond the bounds of the labor movement, 
and they continued to be enunciated. From the main contention, that 
denied commerce between generations, the argument could easily be 
extended beyond the political and economic areas. 

To an acute foreign observer, visiting this country a few years 
after the appearance of Skidmore's polemic, such an extension of prin- 
ciple seemed already to be operative. Alexis de Tocqueville had prob- 
ably the handsomest talent in the century for sensing the significant 
drift of contemporary social and intellectual history; and his experi- 
ence and wisdom told him that the disjunction between generations 
was inevitably becoming a striking aspect of democracy as such: "for 
among democratic nations each generation is a new people." The in- 
sight followed from Tocqueville's analysis of the intellectual character 
of democracy in America, in the second volume of his great study 
(published in translation here in 1840); but it gained additional force 
from his survey of institutions in the preceding volume (1837). 

He had observed there, in a section called "Instability of the Admin- 
istration in the United States," that "no one cares for what occurred 
before his time. ... In America, society seems to live from hand to 
mouth, like an army in the field. Nevertheless, the art of administra- 
tion is undoubtedly a science, and no sciences can be improved if the 
discoveries and observations of successive generations are not con- 
nected together in the order in which they occur." On the evidence, 
Tocqueville could infer that "democracy, pushed to its furthest limits, 

The American Adam 

is ... prejudicial to the art of government," something the Jeffer- 
sonians might cheerfully have confirmed. Tocqueville noticed a similar 
brevity of life in philosophic theories or literary conventions. Demo- 
cratic literature, he thought, was not only shorn of received conven- 
tions, it was inherently almost incapable of generating its own; "if it 
should happen that the men of some one period were agreed upon any 
such rules, that would prove nothing for the following period." That 
circumstance was to comprise an important part of the artist's dilem- 
ma in America. 

As the principle of the sovereign present thrust upward from its 
political and economic roots, it managed to affect not only literature, 
but educational beliefs, too, and religious doctrines (fifty years before 
John Dewey elaborated it into a coherent philosophic statement). In 
the forties, those who favored territorial expansion in the direction of 
Oregon but who found activity hampered by long-standing laws were 
able to reiterate Jefferson's suggestions about change in laws with 
considerably larger confidence. 2 By 1850, when Hawthorne was writ- 
ing The House of the Seven Gables, he could draw a plausible portrait 
of a young reformer who wanted to apply the idea of the sovereign 
present to every imaginable phase of life: 

Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? It lies upon the present like a 
giant's dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled 
to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of the old giant his 
grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. 
Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to by- 
gone times, to Death, if we give the matter the right word ! . . . For example, 
a dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer 
his own; or, if he died intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions 
of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all our judgment-seats; 
and living judges do but search out and report his decisions. We read in dead 
men's books! We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos! 
We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same 
remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living 
Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds. Whatever we do of our own 
free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us. ... And we must be dead 
ourselves before we can begin to have our proper influence on our own world, 
which will then be no longer our world, but the world of another generation, 
with which we shall have no shadow of right to interfere. 

The profession of the speaker, Holgrave, adds to the content of the 
speech, for this young ex-Fourierite and earnest member of the party 
of Hope ("How you hate everything old!" his audience, Phoebe 

2. Cf. Manifest Destiny, by Albert K. Weinberg (New York, 1935), chap, v, espe- 

The Case against the Past 

Pyncheon, tells him) is not only an artist; he is a practitioner of the 
peculiarly appropriate new art of photography. The instrument of 
Daguerre could achieve in art what the hopeful sought for in life: the 
careful and complete differentiation of the individual in time and space, 
the image of the single person in all his rugged singularity. Dead forms 
and conventions of art are implicit in the catalogue of the oppressive 
past, to be destroyed at set intervals, in the proposition Holgrave 
brings forward a moment later: 

If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses, that 
single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply almost every 
reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt whether even our public 
edifices our capitols, statehouses, courthouses, city-halls and churches 
ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better 
that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years or thereabouts, as a 
hint to people to examine and reform the institutions which they symbolise. 

The estimated time-span for the life of institutions is close to Jef- 
ferson's; but both of Holgrave's speeches, as their references move 
forward from money and laws to moral principles and religious doc- 
trines, indicate the expanded application since 1789 of the notion of 
periodic "purification/* According to the opposition party, the real 
trouble was that the suggestions of the Holgraves had long been put 
into practice. The immediate had triumphed, someone said in the 
alert New York weekly, the Literary World ^ in the same year (1850); 
education was sacrificed to "the immediately practical"; houses were 
built "which fall into tombs and monuments upon the passer-by; . . . 
anybody makes a new religion nowadays, a patent Christianity. The 
old/* the article concluded, "was better." 

But the physical environment had changed enormously since 1789, 
and these changes were the warrant urged for the changes in attitude 
and expression suggested by Holgrave. For example, in a sequence in 
the Democratic Review, there was an article on material progress since 
1789 in one issue (October, 1839), and an editorial on the need for new 
ideas in the next. In the former, a German political refugee named 
Francis Lieber drew up a memorandum for Congress on the statistics 
of progress over the half-century beginning in 1789, with a now 
familiar reverence for arithmetic. Lieber found that the territory of 
the country had tripled and that the population had quadrupled; at 
the same rate of increase, he went on, the American people would, 
after one hundred more years, be equal in numbers to all of Europe. 
He calculated that exports of domestic origin had increased from less 

The American Adam 

than 20,000,000 to nearly 100,000,OJ3 products annually, and tonnage 
from half a million to three times that much. Miles of post road had 
multiplied from 1,300 to 134,818, and post offices from 75 to 12,000. 
Six hundred steamboats had been constructed in thirty years ('The 
immediate builds steamboats of tinder, and roasts passengers alive," 
the Literary World was to mutter); and 1,000 miles of railroad track 
had been laid down. It was in the following issue of the Democratic 
Review that there appeared the editorial mentioned in the Prologue: 
a manifesto of liberation from the past, followed by the demand for 
an independent literature to communicate the novelty of experience 
in the New World. 


"We have the Saint Vitus dance/ 1 This was Thoreau's view of the 
diversion of energies to material expansion and of the enthusiastic 
arithmetic by which expansion was constantly being measured. Miles 
of post roads and millions of tons of domestic export did not convince 
Thoreau that first principles ought to be overhauled; but a close in- 
terest in these matters did convince him that first principles had been 
abandoned. Probably nobody of his generation had a richer sense of 
the potentiality for a fresh, free, and uncluttered existence; certainly 
no one projected the need for the ritual burning of the past in more 
varied and captivating metaphors. This is what Walden is about; it is 
the most searching contemporary account of the desire for a new kind 
of life. But Thoreau's announcement of a spiritual molting season (one 
of his favorite images) did not arise from a belief that the building of 
railroads was proof of the irrelevance of too-well-remembered doc- 
trines. Long before Whitman, himself a devotee of the dazzling sum, 
attacked the extremes of commercialism in Democratic Vistas ^ Thoreau 
was insisting that the obsession with railroads did not demonstrate the 
hope for humanity, but tended to smother it. "Men think it is essen- 
tial that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through 
a telegraph and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether 
they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or men is a 
little uncertain." 

Watching the local railroad train as it passed near Walden Pond on 
the recently laid track between Fitchburg and Boston, Thoreau no- 
ticed that while the narrow little cars moved eastward along the 
ground, the engine smoke drifted skyward, broadening out as it rose. 
The picture (it occurs in the chapter called "Sounds") provided him 
with a meaningful glimpse of that wholeness, of interrelated double- 

The Case against the Past 

ness, which was for Thoreau the required shape of the life that was 
genuinely lived. The trouble with railroads he said it, in fancy, to 
the scores of workmen he saw starting up in protest against him was 
that so few persons who rode on them were heading in any definite 
direction or were aware of a better direction than Boston; quite a few 
persons were simply run over, while the building of railroads crushed 
the heart and life out of the builders. The trouble, in general, with 
expending one's strength on "internal improvements" was that the 
achievement, like the aim, was partial: there was nothing internal 
about them. The opportunity that Thoreau looked out upon from his 
hut at Walden was for no such superficial accomplishment, but for a 
wholeness of spirit realized in a direct experience of the whole of na- 
ture. The words "nature" and "wholeness" have been overworked and 
devitalized (Thoreau and Emerson are partly to blame), and now they 
are suspect; but they glow with health in the imaginatively ordered 
prose of Henry Thoreau. 

The narrator of Walden is a witness to a truly new world which the 
speaker alone has visited, from which he has just returned, and which 
he is sure every individual ought to visit at least once not the visible 
world around Walden Pond, but an inner world which the Walden 
experience allowed him to explore. Thoreau liked to pretend that his 
book was a purely personal act of private communion. But that was 
part of his rhetoric, and Walden is a profoundly rhetorical book, emerg- 
ing unmistakably from the long New England preaching tradition; 
though here the trumpet call announces the best imaginable news 
rather than apocalyptic warnings. Thoreau, in Walden^ is a man who 
has come back down into the cave to tell the residents there that they 
are really in chains, suffering fantastic punishments they have im- 
posed on themselves, seeing by a light that is reflected and derivative. 
A major test of the visionary hero must always be the way he can 
put his experience to work for the benefit of mankind; he demon- 
strates his freedom in the liberation of others. Thoreau prescribes the 
following cure: the total renunciation of the traditional, the conven- 
tional, the socially acceptable, the well-worn paths of conduct, and 
the total immersion in nature. 

Everything associated with the past should be burned away. The 
past should be cast off like dead skin. Thoreau remembered with sym- 
pathetic humor the pitiful efforts of one John Field, an Irishman liv- 
ing at near-by Baker Farm, to catch perch with shiners: "thinking to 
live by some derivative old-country mode in this primitive new coun- 
try." "I look on England today," he wrote, "as an old gentleman who 

The American Adam 

is travelling with a great deal of baggage, trumpery which has accu- 
mulated from long housekeeping, which he has not the courage to 
burn." Thoreau recorded with approval and some envy a Mexican 
purification rite practiced every fifty-two years; and he added, "I have 
scarcely heard of a truer sacrament." These periodic symbolic acts of 
refreshment, which whole societies ought to perform in each generation 
("One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded 
vessels 11 ), were valid exactly because they were images of fundamental 
reality itself. Individuals and groups should enact the rhythmic death 
and rebirth reflected in the change of season from winter to spring, in 
the sequence of night and day. "The phenomena of the year take 
place every day in a pond on a small scale." These were some of the 
essential facts discovered by Thoreau when he fronted them at Wai- 
den; and the experience to which he was to become a witness took its 
shape, in act and in description, from a desire to live in accordance 
with these facts. So it was that he refused the offer of a door-mat, lest 
he should form the habit of shaking it every morning; and, instead, 
every morning "I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a reli- 
gious exercise, and one of the best things which I did." 

The language tells us everything, as Thoreau meant it to. He had 
his own sacramental system, his own rite of baptism. But his use of the 
word "nature" indicates that the function of sacraments was to expose 
the individual again to the currents flowing through nature, rather 
than to the grace flowing down from supernature. The ritual of purifi- 
cation was no less for Thoreau than for St. Paul a dying into life; but 
Thoreau marched to the music he heard; it was the music of the age; 
and he marched in a direction opposite to St. Paul. His familiar witti- 
cism, "One world at a time" (made on his deathbed to an eager abo- 
litionist named Pillsbury, who looked for some illumination of the 
future life from the dying seer) was a fair summary of his position: 
with this addition, that poetry traditionally taken as hints about 
what could be seen through a glass darkly about the next world was 
taken by Thoreau as what had been seen by genius, face to face with 
this one. He was among the first to see Christian literature as only the 
purest and most inspiring of the fables about the relation of man to 
nature and about the infinite capacities of the unaided human spirit. 
The Bible (Thoreau referred to it simply as "an old book") was the 
finest poem which had ever been written; it was the same in substance 
as Homeric or Hindu mythology, but it was richer in metaphor. The 
Bible spoke more sharply to the human condition. This was why 
Thoreau, like Whitman, could employ the most traditional of reli- 

The Case against the Past 

gious phrases and invest them with an unexpected and dynamic new 

It is not surprising that transcendentalism was Puritanism turned 
upside down, as a number of critics have pointed out ; historically, it 
could hardly have been anything else. Transcendentalism drew on the 
vocabularies of European romanticism and Oriental mysticism; but 
the only available local vocabulary was the one that the hopeful were 
so anxious to escape from, and a very effective way to discredit its 
inherited meaning was to serve it up in an unfamiliar context. There 
was something gratifyingly shocking in such a use of words: "What 
demon possessed me that I behaved so well?" Thoreau spoke as fre- 
quently as he could, therefore, about a sacrament^ a sacred mystery, 
such as baptism: in order to define the cleansing, not of St. Paul's 
natural man, but of the conventional or traditional man; in order, pre- 
cisely, to bring into being the natural man. For the new tensions out 
of which insights were drawn and moral choices provoked were no 
longer the relation of nature and grace, of man and God, but of the 
natural and the artificial, the new and the old, the individual and the 
social or conventional. Thoreau had, as he remarked in his other 
deathbed witticism, no quarrel with God; his concern was simply other. 

His concern was with the strangulation of nature by convention. 
The trouble with conventions and traditions in the New World was 
that they had come first; they had come from abroad and from a very 
long way back; and they had been superimposed upon nature. They 
had to be washed away, like sin, so that the natural could reveal itself 
again and could be permitted to create its own organic conventions. 
They had to be renounced, as the first phase of the ritual; and if re- 
nunciation was, as Emily Dickinson thought, a piercing virtue, it was 
not because it made possible an experience of God in an infusion of 
grace, but because it made possible an experience of self in a bath of 

Thoreau had, of course, learned a good deal from Emerson, whose 
early energy was largely directed toward constructing "an original re- 
lation with the universe" and who reverted time and again to the 
same theme: "beware of tradition"; "forget historical Christianity"; 
"lop off all superfluity and tradition, and fall back on the nature of 
things." And what was this nature of things which men were enjoined 
to fall back on ? Lowell understood some of it, in one of the better 
sentences of his querulous and uneven essay on Thoreau (1865): 
"There is only one thing better than tradition, and that is the original 
and eternal life out of which all tradition takes its rise. It was this life 


The American Adam 

which the reformers demanded, with more or less clearness of con- 
sciousness and expression, life in politics, life in literature, life in re- 
ligion." But even in this moment of qualified approval, Lowell makes 
it sound too pallid, soft, and ethereal. Nature was not merely the 
mountains and the prairie, any more than it was merely the bees and 
the flowers; but it was all of those things too, and it must always in- 
clude them. If nature was partly represented by "Higher Laws," as the 
title of one chapter in Walden tells us, it was represented also by 
"Brute Neighbors," "Winter Animals," and a "Bean-Field," as we 
know from the titles of other chapters. Thoreau's nature is bounded 
by an irony which applies the phrase "Higher Laws" to a chapter that, 
for all its idealism, talks at some length about fried rats. 

Irony too the doubleness of things Thoreau could learn from 
Emerson, as each of them had learned from Coleridge and Plato. "All 
the universe over," Emerson wrote in his journal (1842), "there is just 
one thing, this old double." The old double, the ideal and the actual, 
the higher law and the fried rat, required a double consciousness and 
found expression in a double criticism; nature could be satisfied with 
nothing else. Emerson tramped in mud puddles, and Thoreau, more 
adventurously, swam in Walden Pond; the puddle and the pond were 
instances of unimpeded nature; but both men searched, in their sepa- 
rate ways, for the spiritual analogues which completed the doubleness 
of nature. Their ability to address themselves with very nearly equal 
fluency to both dimensions of consciousness gave later comfort to 
idealists and nominalists alike, though neither group understood the 
Emersonian principle that only the whole truth could be true at all. 
Bronson Alcott was the most high-minded of the contemporary ideal- 
ists, but Emerson chided him for neglecting the value of the many in 
his rapture for the one, and thought he had genius but no talent. "The 
philosophers of Fruitlands," Emerson said in 1843, naming Alcott's 
experimental community, "have such an image of virtue before their 
eyes, that the poetry of man and nature they never see; the poetry 
that is man's life, the poorest pastoral clownish life; the light that 
shines on a man's hat, in a child's spoon." He was harder, of course, 
on those who saw only the hat and the spoon: the materialists and the 
tradesmen whom he excoriated in many essays, and writers who stuck 
too obstinately to the ordinary (Emerson would say, the "vulgar") 
aspects of the visible world. 

Thoreau's personal purification rite began with the renunciation of 
old hats and old spoons and went forward to the moment as he de- 
scribes himself in the opening paragraph of "Higher Laws" when the 

The Case against the Past 

initiate stood fully alive in the midst of nature, eating a woodchuck 
with his fingers, and supremely aware, at the same instant, of the 
higher law of virtue. "I love the wild not less than the good," Thoreau 
admitted, announcing duplicity in his own peculiar accent. The struc- 
ture of Walden has a similar beginning and a similar motion forward. 
The book starts amid the punishing conventions of Concord, departs 
from them to the pond and the forest, explores the natural surround- 
ings, and exposes the natural myth of the yearly cycle, to conclude 
with the arrival of spring, the full possession of life, and a representa- 
tive anecdote about the sudden bursting into life of a winged insect 
long buried in an old table of apple-tree wood. 3 

Individual chapters are sometimes carried along to the same 
rhythm. "Sounds," for example, starts with conventional signs and 
then looks to nature for more authentic ones; it picks up the cycle of 
the day, as Thoreau listens to sounds around the clock; and it con- 
cludes with a total surrender to the vitalizing power of unbounded 
nature. Thoreau had been talking about his reading in the previous 
chapter; now he reminds us: "While we are confined to books ... we 
are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events 
speak without metaphor." Sounds are elements of this natural lan- 
guage: the sound of the trains passing in the morning; the church bells 
from Lincoln, Bedford, or Concord; the lowing of cows in the evening; 
"regularly at half-past seven/' the vesper chant of the whip-poor- 
wills; the "maniacal hooting of owls," which "represent the stark twi- 
light and unsatisfied thoughts which all have"; "late in the evening 
. . . the distant rumbling of wagons over bridges, a sound heard 
farther than almost any other at night, the baying of dogs . . . the 
trump of bullfrogs"; and then at dawn the morning song of the cock- 
erel, the lusty call to awaken of the chanticleer which Thoreau offered 
on the title-page as the symbol of the book. "To walk in a winter 
morning, in a wood where these birds abounded . . . think of it! It 
would put nations on the alert." Finally, in a morning mood, Thoreau 
closes his chapter rejoicing that his hut has no yard, no fence, but is 
part of unfenced nature itself. 

It was with the ultimate aim of making such an experience possible 
a life determined by nature and enriched by a total awareness 
that Thoreau insisted so eloquently upon the baptismal or rebirth 

3. I am indebted here to the analysis of Walden as a rebirth ritual by Stanley 
Hyman, "Henry Thoreau in Our Time," Atlantic Monthly , CLXXVIII (November, 
1946), 137-46. Mr. Hyman acknowledges his own debt, which I share, to F. O. Mat- 
thiessen's treatment of Thoreau in American Renaissance (New York, 1941). 

The American Adam 

rite. What he was demanding was that individuals start life all over 
again, and that in the new world a fresh start was literally and imme- 
diately possible to anyone wide enough awake to attempt it. It was in 
this way that the experience could also appear as a return to child- 
hood, to the scenes and the wonder of that time. In a particularly re- 
vealing moment, Thoreau reflected, while adrift on the lake in the 
moonlight and playing the flute for the fishes, on a boyhood adventure 
at that very place. "But now/' he said, "I made my home by the 
shore." Thoreau reflected the curious but logical reverence of his age 
for children: "Children, who play life, discern its true law and rela- 
tions more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily." Children 
seemed for Thoreau to possess some secret which had been lost in the 
deadening process of growing up, some intimation (like Wordsworth's 
child) which had faded under the routine pressure of everyday life. 
Emerson found the new attitude of adults toward children the appro- 
priate symbol with which to introduce his retrospective summary of 
the times (1867): "Children had been repressed and kept in the back- 
ground; now they were considered, cosseted and pampered." Thoreau 
thought he knew why: because "every child begins the world again"; 
every child managed to achieve without conscious effort what the 
adult could achieve only by the strenuous, periodic act of refreshment. 
In this sense, the renewal of life was a kind of homecoming; the busks 
and the burnings were preparatory to recapturing the outlook of 

Psychologists who have followed Jung's poetic elaboration and doc- 
trinaire schematizing of the guarded suggestions of Freud could make 
a good deal of the impulse. They might describe it as an impulse to 
return to the womb; and some support could doubtless be found in the 
image-clusters of Walden: water, caves, shipwrecks, and the like. This 
approach might persuasively maintain that the end of the experience 
narrated by Thoreau was the reintegration of the personality. And 
since, according to Jung, "the lake in the valley is the unconscious," 
it is possible to hold that Walden enacts and urges the escape from the 
convention-ridden conscious and the release of the spontaneous ener- 
gies of personality lying beneath the surface, toward a reuniting of the 
psychic "old double." An analysis of this sort can be helpful and even 
illuminating, and it could be applied to the entire program of the 
party of Hope, substituting terms associated with the unconscious for 
all the terms associated with Emerson's "Reason." A certain warrant 
for the psychological interpretation can be found in the novels of Dr. 
Holmes, and the methodological issue arises more sharply in that dis- 

The Case against the Past 

cussion. But we may also remind ourselves that the psychological vo- 
cabulary simply manipulates a set of metaphors other than those we 
normally use. Probably we do not need to go so far afield to grasp what 
Thoreau was seeking to explain; we may even suspect that he meant 
what he said. And what he said was that he went to the woods in order 
to live deliberately, "to front only the essential facts of life"; because 
human life and human expression were so burdened with unexamined 
habits, the voice of experience so muffled by an uninvestigated inher- 
itance, that only by a total rejection of those habits and that inher- 
itance and by a recovery of a childlike wonder and directness could 
anyone find out whether life were worth living at all. 

Thoreau, like most other members of the hopeful party, understood 
dawn and birth better than he did night and death. He responded at 
once to the cockerel in the morning; the screech owls at night made 
him bookish and sentimental. And though their wailing spoke to him 
about "the low spirits and melancholy forebodings of fallen souls," the 
whole dark side of the world was no more than another guaranty of 
the inexhaustible variety of nature. 4 Thoreau knew not evil; his 
American busk would have fallen short, like the bonfire in Haw- 
thorne's fantasy, of the profounder need for the purification of the 
human heart. He would have burned away the past as the accumula- 
tion of artifice, in the name of the natural and the essential. But if the 
natural looked to him so much more wholesome and so much more 
dependable than others have since thought it, his account of the re- 
covery of nature was never less than noble: the noblest expression, in 
fact and in language, of the first great aspiration of the age. 

4. Thoreau goes on to say that the hooting of owls "is a sound admirably suited to 
swamps and twilight woods which no day illustrates, suggesting a vast and undeveloped 
nature which men have not yet recognized." The figurative language here is suggestive 
and may be surprising to anyone who supposes Thoreau unaware of the very existence 
of the cloacal regions of mind and nature. 


The New Adam: Holmes 
and Whitman 

"And now," observes Adam, "we must again try to dis- 
cover what sort of world this is, and why we have been sent 

HAWTHORNE, "The New Adam and Eve" 

THE fullest portrayal of the new world's representative man as a 
new, American Adam was given by Walt Whitman in Leaves of 
Grass in the liberated, innocent, solitary, forward-thrusting person- 
ality that animates the whole of that long poem. Leaves of Grass tells 
us what life was made of, what it felt like, what it included, and what 
it lacked for the individual who began at that moment, so to speak, 
where the rebirth ritual of Walden leaves off. With the past discarded 
and largely forgotten, with conventions shed and the molting season 
concluded, what kind of personality would thereupon emerge? What 
would be the quality of the experience which lay in store for it? 

Leaves of Grass was not only an exemplary celebration of novelty in 
America: it also, and perhaps more importantly, brought to its climax 
the many-sided discussion by which over a generation innocence 
replaced sinfulness as the first attribute of the American character. 
Such a replacement was indispensable to Whitman's vision of inno- 
cence, though, of course, it did not account for his poetic genius. But 
the fact was that, of all the inherited notions and practices which the 
party of Hope studied to reject, by far the most offensive was the 
Calvinist doctrine of inherited guilt: the imputation to the living in- 
dividual of the disempowering effects of a sin "originally" committed 
by the first man in the first hours of the race's history. In New Eng- 
land, where the argument was most intense, the traditional view of 
human character was that of orthodox Calvinism. And Calvinism, 
according to the hopeful, not only maintained doctrines of ancient and 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

obscure origin; it even argued in one of them that an ancient and 
obscure misdemeanor could have a positive effect upon the living man. 
Traditionally, an inherited taint was postulated coldly in an inherited 
dogma. It was time to renounce both the taint and the dogma. 

The Unitarians and among them, especially, the Unitarian wit 
and healer, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes mounted the strongest at- 
tack against the doctrine of inherited guilt; and their efforts are to be 
noted before coming to Whitman. But the Unitarian attitude is not 
easily disentangled from the general epidemic of confidence in human 
nature which seemed to be spreading everywhere and which even in- 
fected the party of Memory. Indeed, the nostalgic had been watching 
the new cheerfulness with increasing agitation for a number of years, 
and thought they could spot it within their own citadels. One of them 
put the case as follows: 'Tor a considerable time past, it has been un- 
hesitatingly maintained that all mankind . . . are born free from sin 
and have no moral corruption of nature or propensity of evil that 
they are perfectly innocent that they . . . come into existence in the 
same state in which Adam was before the fall." One might think that 
this polemic was directed against Emerson, who was known to believe 
that "the entertainment of the proposition of depravity is the last 
profligacy and profanation," and who smiled his acknowledgment of 
"each man's innocence"; or perhaps against Thoreau, who found that 
"the impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence"; 
or else against Walt Whitman, the self-styled "chanter of Adamic 
songs." In fact, its target lay inside its own party; it was a reaction 
as early as 1828 to the whispers of extremely modified hope which 
could be heard at Calvinist Yale in the gentle voices of men like 
Nathaniel Taylor. 

It is not easy to imagine that anyone who held, as Taylor did, that 
"the entire moral depravity of mankind is by nature," that sin is a 
real and universal thing to be "truly and properly ascribed to nature 
and not to circumstances," and that men sin "as soon as they become 
moral agents . . . as soon as they can" was considered a dangerous 
radical. But Taylor was regarded as such, and so even was Moses 
Stuart, professor of theology at relentlessly orthodox Andover. For 
these men seemed to be retreating some small distance at least from 
the sound principles of Jonathan Edwards. They seemed to be saying 
and teaching that, although human beings did observably disobey the 
commandments of God, they did so on their own, by an assertion of 
their own nature, and not because of a total corruption transmitted 
at the instant of their conception from a diseased ancestry originally 

The American Adam 

and fatally infected by Adam. They seemed to be embracing the false 
doctrine which had given rise to all the grievous dissensions of New 
England Protestantism; they seemed, almost, as bad as the Uni- 
tarians. 1 

But there was no stopping the force of the new optimism. Every- 
body professed a little of it, and everybody complained that his neigh- 
bor was professing too much. The march of heresy was punctuated by 
the blows visited by one combatant upon the head of him next on the 
left. While Moses Stuart was being chided for yielding an inch on 
total depravity, he himself was busy replying to the larger yieldings 
indicated by the sermons and essays of Unitarians Channing and An- 
drews Norton; and the dismay of Norton at being, as he said, so badly 
misconstrued by Moses Stuart exploded in the rage and fear aroused 
by Emerson's sublimely confident address to the Harvard Divinity 
School in 1837. Theodore Parker, in turn, after valiantly reinforcing 
Channing's hopeful Unitarian gospel, was almost hustled out of the 
American Unitarian Association, since, as Lowell put it, "from their 
orthodox kind of dissent, he dissented." The human stock, one might 
say. tracing the development chronologically, was rising steadily, until 
it achieved its highest value in the figure of Adam. The status of 
Jesus declined proportionately, or, at least, it continued to until 
Emerson, who deified everybody, also deified Jesus once more there- 
by, in a characteristic Emersonian paradox, demonstrating the fulness 
of Jesus' humanity. 

The Unitarians, consequently, stood at approximately the middle 
point in the controversy between someone like Moses Stuart, on the 
one hand, and Emerson, on the other. They took their name from their 
rejection of the Trinity in favor of Unity; but if they could get along 
without two of three persons of the Trinity, it was because of a prior 
conviction about the nature of man. 

As the Unitarian minister and historian of the movement, George 
A. Ellis, wrote in 1857, looking back on A Half-Century oj the Unitari- 
an Controversy , 'The doctrine, that God visited the guilt of Adam's 
personal sin upon the unborn millions of his posterity . . . was infi- 

1. Cf. Sidney Earl Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor (Chicago, 1942), p. 215: the 
orthodox attitude suggested that "the Unitarians will just send out a boat and tow 
[Taylor] in.*' In his Autobiography (New York, 1869), p. 157, Lyman Beecher recalled 
the utter dismay with which he heard a colleague express doubt about the depravity 
of infants: "The moment I heard that, I saw the end. I never felt so bad." Cf. also 
"Backgrounds of Unitarian Opposition to Transcendentalism," by Clarence A. Faust, 
Modern Philology^ February, 1938; and Joseph Haroutinian, Piety versus Moralism 
(New York, 1932). 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

nitely more objectionable to some liberal Christians than the Trini- 
tarian theory/' To the Unitarians, the Calvinist picture of man 
sounded like this: 

A corrupted nature is conveyed by ordinary generation, to all of Adam's 
posterity, in consequence of his personal sin. ... If this Orthodox doctrine is 
not a most shameful trifling with solemnities, as well as with language, it 
asserts that, by the constitution and appointment of God, the one man Adam 
had like power to communicate a vitiated nature, like a hereditary disease, 
not merely to the bodies, but to the souls of all human beings. . . . This doc- 
trine either contradicts truth and reason, in affirming that any one can be 
partaker in sin committed before his birth, or it contradicts justice and 
righteousness, by subjecting us to punishment for the offence of another. 

That was the issue, as the Unitarians read it, on the whole correctly, 
in the contemporary discussion. If all the force and meaning of the old 
idea of original sin had disappeared from the religious consciousness 
of the day, it was largely the fault of orthodoxy, the religious element 
in the party of Memory. For that party, too, argued the case in almost 
exclusively historical terms, affirming the enslavement of the present 
by the past as heatedly as the hopeful insisted on its freedom. But 
the orthodox showed little awareness of the organic vitality of history, 
of the way in which the past can enliven the present: the past was 
simply the place where the issues had been decided, and the decision 
was all that mattered. The orthodox habit of presenting the end-prod- 
uct of religious belief drained of the spiritual impulses which had gone 
into the historical shaping of it led to a frozen but fragile structure, 
and one not likely to hold very long against the assaults of the oppo- 
sition. The energetic hostility of the hopeful to the influence of the 
past, to the transmission of anything be it laws, property, or ideas 
gathered against the doctrine of transmitted guilt and over- 
whelmed it. 

The stand on the Trinity followed. For if the individual started on 
his spiritual career with an unsullied conscience, there was no need for 
expiation; there was no need, as the Unitarians were willing to say 
quite explicitly, of a propitiation for our sins. The sacrifice of the god 
satisfied a human yearning for a redemption possible only by a divine 
action; but the yearning vanished along with the sense of sin. The 
reason for the divinity of Jesus evaporated; and he became, like Paul, 
one of the most admirable of the characters in ancient history. The 
third member of the Trinity was no less rapidly defunctionalized by 
the hopeful attitude; for in a view which rested upon a freedom from 
history, upon a lack of communion between one generation and the 

The American Adam 

next, there was no function for a continuing presence in time and 
history, for a guaranty of the unity of all ages. 

The Unitarian controversy can be dated, as George Ellis dated it, 
from about 1808, when the Unitarian theories about man and God 
were introduced at Harvard by Henry Ware and given some sanction 
by his position as Hollis Professor of Divinity. Unitarianism itself, of 
course, went back much farther. Most of its doctrine had been 
preached by such disciples of Enlightenment and such anti-Edwards- 
cans as Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew (who died in 1766). 
The natural goodness of man, the unlikelihood of hell, the benevolence 
and probable singularity of God were none of them novel propositions. 
They had made their appearance with the birth of Christianity; and 
the various heresies about the nature of Jesus, with their shifting cor- 
ollaries about the nature of man, had been meticulously outlawed one 
by one in the great church councils of the first Christian centuries. 
They have recurred since at such regular intervals that their appear- 
ance can never be adequately explained in terms of immediate intel- 
lectual "background." Perhaps social psychology would be more help- 
ful: what governs the rise and fall of man's evaluation of himself? 


"If for the Fall of man, science comes to substitute the Rise of man, 
sir, it means the utter disintegration of all the spiritual pessimisms 
which have been like a spasm in the heart and a cramp in the intellect 
of man for so many centuries." The operative word in that utterance 
of Oliver Wendell Holmes, with its Johnsonian stance and its thor- 
oughly Holmesian metaphor, is "science." For Holmes was not merely 
echoing the current Unitarian resentment against orthodoxy's picture 
of fallen nature: he was advocating a new picture of man and indicat- 
ing the sources of his evidence. 

"Science" meant many things, but in the ethical discussion it meant 
primarily the pre-Darwinian evolutionary hypothesis of Lamarck, a 
hypothesis about the steady development of the human species which 
happily coincided with and could be taken as a kind of proof of the con- 
temporary high estimate of human nature. Holmes took the Lamarck- 
ian theory as the basis for his best-known (though not at all his most 
attractive) poem, "The Chambered Nautilus" (1858), in which the 
soul is compared to the shellfish and enjoined, like it, to build itself 
ever more stately mansions, "each new temple nobler than the last." 

What science was replacing, according to Holmes, was a view of 
life ordered by the moralism of a desiccated Calvinist theology. He 


The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

saw orthodoxy as embodying a set of beliefs and precepts inherited 
from a remote Asiatic epoch: tradition in its most paralyzing form. 
"Our dwellings are built on shell-heaps," he said; "the kitchen-midden 
of the age of stone. Inherited beliefs, as obscure in their origin as the 
parentage of the cave-dwellers, are stronger with many minds than 
the evidence of the senses and the simplest deductions of the intelli- 
gence." Holmes bent his energies to removing ancient ideas from the 
head and an ancient anxiety from the heart of living man. His moti- 
vation was that of his fellow-Unitarians; but his special weapon was 
empirical science: the evidence of the senses. 

Holmes is an instructive guide for us, as we leave the wastelands of 
orthodoxy and approach the new Eden of Walt Whitman, for he him- 
self made almost the entire journey. He went to school at orthodox 
Andover, where a whipping he received evidently produced a sort of 
traumatic experience. He came on to Harvard, in 1825, when Unitari- 
anism was in the ascendancy, and became its wittiest exponent. He 
moved on to be one of America's leading men of science. In fact, Oliver 
Wendell Holmes, whose long life (1809-94) spanned the century, 
ought to have been a most arresting figure, perhaps the representative 
man of his age; it is not easy to say why he so often disappoints us. 
Perhaps it is because he was at the center of so many tendencies and 
managed to occupy the middle only by achieving a consistent 

Holmes stood midway between the vanishing virility of his father's 
Calvinism and the emerging vitality of his son's militant humanism; 
what seems to have been available to him from either direction was 
frequently only the secondary or illusory. The suspicions which cloud- 
ed his kindly view of human nature lacked the terrible strength which 
his father, Abiel Holmes, brought to his Calvinist ministry, while his 
enlightened repudiation of the divine elect took him only as far as the 
socially eligible, and his replacement of the visible saints by the Bos- 
ton quality had little of the astringent social philosophy of his son, 
the Justice. Holmes stood at the heart of his own time. He was, of 
course, a Harvard man forever, and the class poet par excellence; he 
was also a respected colleague and friend of the Swiss zoologist, Louis 
Agassiz. Holmes could listen attentively to the Swedenborgian mysti- 
fyings by which the elder James mapped the way of regeneration; he 
could equally grasp and expound the therapeutic methods by which 
clinical psychology hoped to accomplish the same thing. He led the 
attack on the old theology; but he was a competent critic and a great 
lover of the old literature. His interests were rich and varied; yet what 


The American Adam 

we are apt to find in him is less a synthesis of these interests than a 
good-humored shrewdness about them all, a solid common sense not 
deep enough for skepticism, not large enough for faith. 

At the same time, it is probably misleading to say of him, in the 
phrase which has clung, that he was an "authentic Brahmin" unless 
Brahminism is a more complex state of mind than is commonly al- 
lowed. For Holmes, like his partially autobiographical character 
Byles Gridley in The Guardian Angel^ was "a strange union of tram- 
pling radicalism in some directions and high-stepping conservatism 
in others." The traditionalist side is better known and remembered; 
it included familiar traits of the party of Memory, and it has helped 
to associate him with that party far more than Holmes would have 
wanted. He was old-fashioned with respect to manners: he remained, 
that is, a stickler for common courtesy. He talked a good deal, no 
doubt too much, about the virtues of breeding, with an eyebrow 
cocked at the "large, uncombed youth" who outdid his betters at 
study. He was cautious on the issue of slavery, not because, like Haw- 
thorne, he could see beyond it to its source in the darker corners of the 
heart, but because he found the uproar a trifle vulgar. He was bored 
by strident nationalism in literature, or in anything else; and he 
thought that the dead hand of the past need not always (as Holgrave 
felt) choke the life out of us, but that it could be used according to 
the old medical superstition to cure our swellings: "to take down our 
tumid egotism and lead us into the solemn flow of our race." Holmes's 
views on these matters were relaxed; they were points in the world 
about him which he was inclined to accept without the exertion of 
dispassionate analysis. When he began to talk about the nature and 
function of science, he had something new to say and a resonant vo- 
cabulary in which to say it: "The attitude of modern science is erect, 
her aspect serene, her determination inflexible, her onward movement 
unflinching; because she believes herself, in the order of providence, 
the true successor of the men of old who brought down the light of 
heaven to men." 

Almost all of the Holmes that interests us here is in that sentence. 
The qualities that Holmes attributes to science could be attributed 
with the same buoyant confidence to the individual in America. As the 
profile of the new Adam emerges, we can notice that he too is erect, 
serene, inflexible, unflinching: and, according to Dr. Holmes, exactly 
because "modern science" had liberated him, explained him to him- 
self, and imparted to him science's own stalwart nature. For science 
would provide the new religion and the new prophets and mediators; 


The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

science would write the new testament and invent the new metaphors. 
If Dr. Holmes, as one of the first champions of science, did very well 
at this game, it was largely because he understood to a remarkable 
extent what the game was about. Perhaps the most succinct statement 
of Holmes's achievement was that he recast traditional religious con- 
cepts in scientific and humanistic terms, that he extracted what he 
saw as the facts of the human situation from the metaphors of myth 
and posited them anew in the language of psychology and anthro- 

Holmes's artful and sometimes even compelling transpositions are 
illustrated best in two of his scientific or "medicated" novels, Elsie 
Venner and The Guardian Angel. The very genre to which Holmes 
ascribed these books was a sign of his enterprise; for while Emerson 
and Whitman were trying their best to convert medical facts into in- 
spirational poetry, Holmes was converting a literary form into a 
vehicle for a medical case history. Each of the books also enacts the 
crucial shift in the long arguments between minister and doctor, with 
the doctor getting the final word in every discussion. Holmes's 
"novels" are suggestive if, out of fairness to their author, we do not 
ask of them any questions prompted by a literary bias. 

In Elsie Venner (1861), Holmes tested the dreary theories which 
George Ellis and his Unitarian associates imputed to orthodoxy: that 
a living individual could be "a partaker in a sin committed before his 
birth"; that he can consequently suffer punishment "for the offence 
of another." Holmes said in the Introduction that he had attempted 
"to illustrate the doctrine of inherited moral responsibility for other 
people's misbehavior." This way of formulating or loading the ques- 
tion indicates the extent to which Holmes conceived of his work as 
an exercise in scientific history. Holmes took Hawthorne's The 
Marble Faun (written later than Elsie Venner^ but published a year 
before) as giving the same answer to the same question: though Haw- 
thorne was testing innocence rather than its opposite, and the simi- 
larity of the two novels is essentially the similarity of ethics to medi- 
cine. For Holmes, that similarity was close: how close, he demonstrat- 
ed in his narrative of the hapless Elsie, whose case emerged as an anal- 
ogy to what Holmes took to be the doctrine of original sin. 

As the mother of the human race, Eve, was corrupted by the ser- 
pent, with calamitous results for her children, so the mother of this 
child was bitten by a rattlesnake, with horrid consequences for the 
still unborn Elsie. As a baby, Elsie exhibits features and bodily mo- 
tions reminiscent of the Crota/us, and as she grows up her behavior 


The American Adam 

shows a certain repellent snakelike quality. The essence of Holmes's 
novel is the gradual revelation to a cluster of stock characters in a 
stock New England village of the source and cause of Elsie's disposi- 
tion, her odd facial contortions, and her tendency to hiss; and the 
whole direction of the argument is toward liberating Elsie from re- 
sponsibility. The point the author takes some five hundred pages to 
make is carried in this characteristic colloquial speech of an old 
Negro governess: "It a'n't her fault! It a'n't her fault! If they knew 
all that I know they would'n* blame that poor child." Elsie, the narra- 
tive says, was not morally present at the moment of the prenatal ac- 
cident; she participated in it by no act of will; hence she must not be 
held responsible for the actions which flowed from it. The inherited 
traits were dismal facts, medically established; what could not be in- 
herited, Holmes maintained, was culpability. The analogy between 
Mrs. Venner's child and the children of Eve was drawn in the Intro- 
duction, "Wherein lies the difference between her position at the bar 
of judgment human or divine, and that of the unfortunate victim who 
received a moral poison from a remote ancestor before he drew his 
first breath?" 

Within the novel, the only persons who might at least have carried 
that question further are the local clergy; and their theology is re- 
markably insecure. The case for the defense is vivaciously argued by 
two members of the medical profession : the Professor, who follows the 
story of Elsie's life and early death and who comments from afar, in 
Boston; and the country doctor, who tries to enlighten the spokesmen 
of the various sects. The relatively easy victory of Dr. Kittredge is 
due partly to his ability to transfer the question from the field of reli- 
gion, where his interlocutors might have been more at home, to the 
scientific laboratory. Through the conversations by which Dr. Kit- 
tredge manages to convert the Calvinist minister, we catch an early 
glimpse of the transition from the confessor, with his concern about 
souls, to the physician, with his interest in nervous disorders. From 
the medical point of view, Dr. Kittredge argues, a sin and a headache 
can be subjected to an identical diagnosis. "Our notions of bodily and 
moral disease, or sin, are apt to go together. We used to be as hard on 
sickness as you were on sin. We know better now. . . . We know that 
disease has something back of it, which the body isn't to blame for, at 
least in most cases; and which very often it is trying to get rid of. Just 
so with sin." 

The character of the treatment is determined by the character of 
the diagnosis, as we learn from the Professor: * 'Treat bad men exactly 


The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

as if they were insane. They are in-sane, out of health morally." This 
is the hypothesis of the book; for the Professor is the seer, the magi- 
cian, in Holmes's medical myth; he is, literally, the medicine man. 

Holmes never pretended that there was nothing wrong with the 
world or with individual human beings; he was not innocent, he was 
merely kind. The defense of Elsie Venner sprang from Holmes's aware- 
ness of and his compassion for human failings, and it communicated 
his warming belief that to understand is to forgive. But he was sure 
that theology, or at least the only theology he knew much about, 
would not help anyone to understand. That was to be the function of 
science. Science could teach a man to search for the origins and causes 
of bad actions; and if it discovered them to lie in "external influences," 
in "bad ancestors, abuse in childhood, bad company," science was 
prepared to argue that the actions themselves were not in any moral 
sense bad after all. 

What he wanted, in short, was a renovation of the moral vocabu- 
lary. In order to get it, Holmes felt the necessity of rejecting the entire 
traditional scheme of thought, replacing it with those studies by which 
his friend President Eliot was simultaneously revamping the Harvard 
curriculum: "The truth is," wrote Holmes in an essay on Jonathan 
Edwards, "that the whole system of beliefs which came in with the 
story of the 'fall of man/ the curse of the father conveyed by natural 
descent to his posterity ... is gently fading out of enlightened intel- 
ligence. . . . Astronomy, Geology, Ethnology, and a comparative 
study of Oriental religions have opened the way; and now Anthro- 
pology has taken hold of the matter." 

Holmes's own renovated vocabulary his chosen symbols for de- 
scribing renovated human nature consisted of a series of medical 
metaphors. "Like a spasm in the heart and a cramp in the intellect"; 
"our tumid egotism"; "treat bad men as if they were insane": these 
are examples of Holmes's favorite device, and one which he managed 
with uncommon dexterity. He shared the prevalent belief in the doc- 
trine of correspondences, or likeness in the elements of the physical 
and the spiritual world, but in his own peculiar way. For while Emer- 
son, Thoreau, and Melville found gleams of spiritual meaning in the 
physical scene, a dim outline of the ideal in the actual, Holmes pointed 
to the operation in the ideal realm of actual or physical functions. 
Emerson thought that science (as he said in Nature and in other es- 
says) should be completed and validated by his own brand of meta- 
physics; Holmes thought that the realm of spirit could be overhauled 
by going about it in a scientific manner. "For what we want in the re- 


The American Adam 

ligious and political organisms," he wrote, "is just that kind of vital 
change which takes place in our bodies, interstitial disintegration 
and reintegration." 

If the bad habits of Elsie Venner were pardoned because they 
sprang from a bad ancestry, the self-destructive instinct of Myrtle 
Hazard, the heroine of Holmes's second medicated novel, The Guard- 
ian Angel (1867), was overcome by the gracious influence of a good 
ancestor. The books are not at all contradictory in theme; indeed, they 
serve to resolve the apparent contradictions in their author; and the 
second novel is a valuable complement to the volume published six 
years earlier. The Guardian Angel tells of the escape of a young girl 
from the New England household of her tight-lipped Aunt Silence and 
from a menage further aggravated by the unwelcome attentions of the 
local Calvinist minister. It tells of her attempt at suicide by drowning 
and of her rescue from the river. It describes her convalescence under 
the affectionate care of a doctor and his friends, and concludes with 
her emotional and physical fulfilment in marriage and a new life. It 
hints, all along, at a shadowy "power" Myrtle's "guardian angel" 
who walks beside her pointing the way or speaks from the depths 
within her. 

In Myrtle's departure from the orthodox environment and her re- 
generation in the doctor's home, there is a symbolism, almost stiffen- 
ing into allegory, of the succession by science of the dried-up moralism 
of "religion." But in The Guardian Angel Holmes is less interested in 
continuing the battle against a moldering theology than in describing 
the anatomy of the mental personality and in exposing the scientific 
bases of the rebirth ritual. 2 The experience of Myrtle's immersion in 
water, for example, though projected with slight dramatic effective- 
ness (much less, say, than the comparable experience of the young 
hero at the end of Melville's White-Jacket [1850]), is handled with an 
acute consciousness of its psychic significance. Holmes is careful to in- 
troduce images of her dimly remembered mother into the girl's dis- 
turbed imagination, just before she makes the plunge which is ex- 
plicitly intended to be what later psychologists would call a return to 
the womb. Holmes knew what he was about, to the extent that it 
scarcely measures his awareness to say only that he "anticipated" 
some of the insights of Freud and Jung. On this ground, Holmes may 
be admired in his own right. He centered his story on a genuine mental 

2. Holmes as a philosophical psychologist is the subject of an interesting book by 
Dr. Clarence P. Oberndorf, The Psychiatric Novth of Oliver Wendell Holmes (New 
York, 1943). 


The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

illness, revealed its causes in austerity and repression, and suggested 
a therapy which much later practice would not seriously dispute. 

We may recognize in the domination of the young heroine by Aunt 
Silence what Freud would call the repression of the ego by the super- 
ego. An excessive control by the superego the repository of conven- 
tional moral attitudes results, according to Freud, in a melancholy 
which can lead toward self-destruction; and that was precisely the 
effect of Aunt Silence. Perhaps more striking yet was Holmes's expo- 
sure, in a pre-Jungian manner, of the presence within the recesses of 
the mind of personality types filtered down from the past. The theme 
of The Guardian Angel and its title are derived from this notion, as 
Holmes explains in the opening pages: "There is recorded an experi- 
ence of one of the living persons mentioned in this narrative which 
tends to show that some, at least, who have long been dead, may enjoy 
a kind of secondary and imperfect, yet self-conscious life in these bodi- 
ly tenements which we are in the habit of considering exclusively our 
own." And Myrtle Hazard's habit, during moments of stress, of reveal- 
ing in her features the welling-up of ancestral influence permits Dr. 
Hurlbut, the Tiresias of this novel, to utter the book's message: "Live 
folks are just dead folks warmed over." The theme is more persuasive- 
ly stated than it is dramatized; but Holmes's awkward technique for 
showing in action what he meant in theory was a failure of narrative 
art (to which he hardly aspired) rather than of psychological insight. 

Holmes did succeed, moreover, in distinguishing between those re- 
mote influences, treating them, the way Jung would do, as dramatis 
personae encountered on the psychic journey. Among them, in 
Myrtle's case, we find an Indian forebear, who appears in the girl's 
occasional gestures of violence; and the guardian angel, the "guide" 
who shepherds Myrtle through a variety of perils, an ancestor named 
Anne Holyoake, a sixteenth-century Puritan martyr. It is her image 
that Myrtle confuses with that of her mother. Holmes's story thus 
follows the symbolic pattern later proposed by Jung as the myth of 
psychic reintegration: the escape, the plunge, the journey, the danger- 
ous and the saving encounters, the magical guidance to the journey's 
end, and the final healing of the personality. 

The Guardian Angel y though without merit as literature, is a telling 
contribution toward resolving the tensions between Memory and 
Hope. Ancestry was the point of intersection for Holmes. Both of his 
novels and most of his essays make it plain that he sought, with the 
hopeful, to rid the living of the oppressive misdirection of "bad an- 
cestors," and to stand the present on its own feet. But Holmes had a 


The American Adam 

Brahmin's respect for family and good breeding; and he was able to 
see how the past might nourish as well as stifle. The conservatism in 
him was peculiarly reinforced by his advanced psychiatric under- 
standing of the value of the past as directive. The example of Oliver 
Wendell Holmes might support a contention that the renewed persua- 
sion about the necessity of tradition could best emerge not in theologi- 
cal but in psychological terms: by demonstrating the powerful stabi- 
lizing and energizing effect which the past may have upon the isolated 

The pathos of such isolation was felt and expressed even by that 
archetypal man of good hope, Emerson, who captured the sense of 
confusion and aimlessness which afflicted his more sensitive contem- 
poraries with the words: "Here we drift. . . . To what port are we 
bound? Who knows!" Those wistful questions illustrated the point 
which, a century later, Thomas Mann would discover from the psy- 
chology of Freud and Jung: the point that the individual "would be 
confused, helpless, unstable" if his career "consisted merely in the 
unique and the present." Mann would argue that experience took on 
meaning and purpose only when it was regarded as typical, not unique 
the re-enactment of the past, not the pure event in the present. 
Holmes hinted at much the same thing, as he set about answering 
those Emersonian questions by turning to psychotherapy. The ques- 
tion for him was, How had the lost child Myrtle Hazard, for example 
arrived at her condition? And the cure required an adjustment in 
the working relations between the present and the past. 

But the genuinely hopeful were not really interested in either 
Holmes's analysis or his proposals. Emerson, with total assurance, re- 
ferred his own questions for answer to the Oversoul; and a moment 
later could rejoice in the very adventurousness of the uncharted jour- 
ney. Every tendency in the age which Holmes himself most admired 
was pushing toward a total neglect of the past rather than a last-min- 
ute attempt to restore some of its value. The dominant emotion was 
exhilaration, not wistfulness. "The expansive future is our arena," de- 
claimed that hopeful organ, the Democratic Review. "We are entering 
on its untrodden ways . . . with a clear conscience unsullied by the 
past." The excitement of life, for the hopeful, lay exactly in its present 
uniqueness; the burden of doubt and guilt had been disposed of when 
the whole range of European experience had been repudiated, for the 
burden was the chief product of that experience. The individual moral 
course was thus to be plotted not in terms of readjustment or of 
identification with any portion of the past, and much less in terms of 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

redemption but simply in terms of the healthy cultivation of natu- 
ral, unimpaired faculties. 

The American was to be acknowledged in his complete emancipa- 
tion from the history of mankind. He was to be recognized now for 
what he was a new Adam, miraculously free of family and race, un- 
touched by those dismal conditions which prior tragedies and en- 
tanglements monotonously prepared for the newborn European. 
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his sympathetic and ironic way, had already 
furnished the working metaphor for this phase in the career of the 
New World's representative man: in a companion piece to "Earth's 
Holocaust," a fantasy called "The New Adam and Eve." It was the 
story of a second pair created after "the Day of Doom has burst upon 
the globe and swept away the whole race of man" two pure people 
"with no knowledge of their predecessors nor of the diseased circum- 
stances that had become encrusted around them." Innocent, cheerful, 
curious, they start forth on their way to discover, as Adam is made to 
observe, "what sort of world this is, and why we have been sent 
hither." Holmes, still insisting on the enabling portion of the past, 
could not have told them much about their fresh and purified world. 
But Walt Whitman, in Leaves of Grass, was ready to tell them every- 


Whitman appears as the Adamic man reborn here in the 19th century 

In his old age, Dr. Holmes derived a certain amount of polite amuse- 
ment from the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman, Holmes remarked, 
"carried the principle of republicanism through the whole world of 
created objects"; he smuggled into his "hospitable vocabulary words 
which no English dictionary recognizes as belonging to the language 
words which will be looked for in vain outside of his own pages." 
Holmes found it hard to be sympathetic toward Leaves of Grass; it 
seemed to him windy, diffuse, and humorless; but his perceptions were 
as lively as ever. In these two observations he points to the important 
elements in Whitman which are central here: the spirit of equality 
which animated the surging catalogues of persons and things (on its 
more earthy level, not unlike Emerson's lists of poets and philosophers, 
with their equalizing and almost leveling tendency); the groping after 
novel words to identify novel experiences; the lust for inventiveness 
which motivated what was for Whitman the great act, the creative 

The American Adam 

Holmes's tone of voice, of course, added that for him Whitman had 
gone too far; Whitman was too original, too republican, too entire an 
Adam. Whitman had indeed gone further than Holmes: a crucial and 
dimensional step further, as Holmes had gone further than Channing 
or Norton. In an age when the phrase "forward-looking" was a com- 
monplace, individuals rarely nerved themselves to withstand the shock 
of others looking and moving even further forward than they. Emerson 
himself, who had gone so far that the liberal Harvard Divinity School 
forbade his presence there for more than thirty years, shared some of 
Holmes's feeling about Whitman. When his cordial letter welcoming 
Leaves of Grass in 1855 was published in the New York Tribune, Emer- 
son muttered in some dismay that had he intended it for publication, 
he "should have enlarged the but very much enlarged the but." 
Leaves of Grass "was pitched in the very highest key of self-reliance/' 
as a friend of its author maintained; but Emerson, who had given that 
phrase its contemporary resonance, believed that any attitude raised 
to its highest pitch tended to encroach dangerously on the truth of its 

It would be no less accurate to say that Walt Whitman, instead of 
going too far forward, had gone too far backward: for he did go back, 
all the way back, to a primitive Adamic condition, to the beginning 
of time. 

In the poetry of Walt Whitman, the hopes which had until now ex- 
pressed themselves in terms of progress crystallized all at once in a 
complete recovery of the primal perfection. In the early poems Whit- 
man accomplished the epochal return by huge and almost unconscious 
leaps. In later poems he worked his way more painstakingly up the riv- 
er of history to its source: as, for example, in "Passage to India," where 
the poet moves back from the recently constructed Suez Canal, back 
past Christopher Columbus, past Alexander the Great and the most 
ancient of heroes and peoples, to the very "secret of the earth and 
sky." "In the beginning," John Locke once wrote, "all the world was 
America." Whitman manages to make us feel what it might have been 
like; and he succeeds at last in presenting the dream of the new Adam 
along with his sorrows. 

A measure of Whitman's achievement is the special difficulty which 
that dream had provided for others who tried to recount it. Its charac- 
ter was such that it was more readily described by those who did not 
wholly share in it. How can absolute novelty be communicated? All 
the history of the philosophy of language is involved with that ques- 
tion, from The Cratylus of Plato to the latest essay on semantics; and 

The New Adam: Holmes md Whitman 

one could bring to bear on it the variety of anecdotes about Adam's 
naming the animals by the disturbingly simple device of calling a toad 
a toad. 

Hawthorne conveyed the idea of novelty by setting it in an ancient 
pattern: allowing it thereby exactly to be recognized; and reaching a 
sharpness of meaning also to be found in Tocqueville's running dialec- 
tic of democracies and aristocracies. Whitman employed the same 
tactic when he said of Coleridge that he was "like Adam in Paradise, 
and just as free from artificiality." This was a more apt description of 
himself, as he knew: 

I, chanter of Adamic songs, 
Through the new garden the West, 
the great cities calling. 

It is, in fact, in the poems gathered under the title Children of Adam 
(1860) that we have the most explicit evidence of his ambition to 
reach behind tradition to find and assert nature untroubled by art, to 
re-establish the natural unfallen man in the living hour. Unfallen man 
is, properly enough, unclothed as well; the convention of cover came 
in with the Fall; and Whitman adds his own unnostalgic sincerity to 
the Romantic affection for nakedness: 

As Adam, early in the morning, 
Walking forth from the bower refresh'd with sleep, 
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach, 
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body 

as I pass, 
Be not afraid of my body. 

For Whitman, as for Holmes and Thoreau, the quickest way of 
framing his novel outlook was by lowering, and secularizing, the famil- 
iar spiritual phrases: less impudently than Thoreau but more earnest- 
ly, and indeed more monotonously, but with the same intention of 
salvaging the human from the religious vocabulary to which (he felt) 
it had given rise. Many of Whitman's poetic statements are conver- 
sions of religious allusion : the new miracles were acts of the senses (an 
odd foreshortening, incidentally, of Edwards' Calvinist elaboration of 
the Lockian psychology); the aroma of the body was "finer than 
prayer"; his head was "more than churches, bibles and all creeds." 
"If I worship one thing more than another," Whitman declaimed, in a 
moment of Adamic narcissism, "it shall be the spread of my own 
body." These assertions gave a peculiar stress to Whitman's seconding 
of the hopeful belief in men like gods: "Divine am I, inside and out, 


The American Adam 

and I make holy whatever I touch." Whitman's poetry is at every 
moment an act of turbulent incarnation. 

But although there is, as there was meant to be, a kind of shock- 
value in such lines, they are not the most authentic index to his per- 
vasive Adamism, because in them the symbols have become too ex- 
plicit and so fail to work symbolically. Whitman in these instances is 
stating his position and contemplating it; he is betraying his own prin- 
ciple of indirect statement; he is telling us too much, and the more he 
tells us, the more we seem to detect the anxious, inflated utterance of 
a charlatan. We cling to our own integrity and will not be thundered 
at. We respond far less willingly to Whitman's frontal assaults than 
we do to his dramatizations; when he is enacting his role rather than 
insisting on it, we are open to persuasion. And he had been enacting 
it from the outset of Leaves of Grass. 

This is the true nature of his achievement and the source of his 
claim to be the representative poet of the party of Hope. For the "self" 
in the very earliest of Whitman's poems is an individual who is always 
moving forward. To say so is not merely to repeat that Whitman be- 
lieved in progress ; indeed, it is in some sense to deny it. The young 
Whitman, at least, was not an apostle of progress in its customary 
meaning of a motion from worse to better to best, an improvement 
over a previous historic condition, a "rise of man." For Whitman, 
there was no past or "worse" to progress from; he moved forward be- 
cause it was the only direction (he makes us think) in which he could 
move; because there was nothing behind him or if there were, he had 
not yet noticed it. There is scarcely a poem of Whitman's before, say, 
1867, which does not have the air of being the first poem ever written, 
the first formulation in language of the nature of persons and of things 
and of the relations between them; and the urgency of the language 
suggests that it was formulated in the very nick of time, to give the 
objects described their first substantial existence. 

Nor is there, in Leaves of Grass, any complaint about the weight or 
intrusion of the past; in Whitman's view the past had been so effective- 
ly burned away that it had, for every practical purpose, been forgotten 
altogether. In his own recurring figure, the past was already a corpse; 
it was on its way out the door to the cemetery; Whitman watched it 
absent-mindedly, and turned at once to the living reality. He did 
enjoy, as he reminds us, reciting Homer while walking beside the 
ocean; but this was just because Homer was exempt from tradition 
and talking at and about the dawn of time. Homer was the poet you 
found if you went back far enough; and as for the sea, it had (unlike 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

Melville's) no sharks in it no ancient, lurking, indestructible evil 
powers. Whitman's hope was unspoiled by memory. When he became 
angry, as he did in Democratic Vistas (1871), he was not attacking his 
generation in the Holgrave manner for continuing to accept the old 
and the foreign, but for fumbling its extraordinary opportunity, for 
taking a wrong turn on the bright new highway he had mapped for it. 
Most of the time he was more interested in the map, and we are more 
interested in him when he was. 

It was then that he caught up and set to music the large contempo- 
rary conviction that man had been born anew in the new society, that 
the race was off to a fresh start in America. It was in Leaves of Grass 
that the optative mood, which had endured for over a quarter of a 
century and had expressed itself so variously and so frequently, 
seemed to have been transformed at last into the indicative. It was 
there that the hope that had enlivened spokesmen from Noah Webster 
in 1825 ("American glory begins at the dawn") to the well-named 
periodical, Spirit of the Age in 1849 ("The accumulated atmosphere of 
ages, containing stale ideas and opinions . . . will soon be among the 
things that were") that all that stored-up abundance of hope found 
its full poetic realization. Leaves of Grass was a climax as well as a be- 
ginning, or rather, it was the climax of a long effort to begin. 

This was why Emerson, with whatever enlarged "buts" in his mind, 
made a point of visiting Whitman in New York and Boston; why Tho- 
reau, refusing to be put off "by any brag or egoism in his book," pre- 
ferred Whitman to Bronson Alcott; and why Whitman, to the steady 
surprise of his countrymen, has been regarded in Europe for almost a 
century as unquestionably the greatest poet the New World has pro- 
duced: an estimate which even Henry James would come round to. 
European readers were not slow to recognize in Whitman an authentic 
rendering of their own fondest hopes; for if much of his vision had been 
originally imported from Germany and France, it had plainly lost its 
portion of nostalgia en route. While European romanticism continued 
to resent the effect of time, Whitman was announcing that time had 
only just begun. He was able to think so because of the facts of imme- 
diate history in America during the years when he was maturing: when 
a world was, in some literal way, being created before his eyes. It was 
this that Whitman had the opportunity to dramatize; and it was this 
that gave Leaves of Grass its special quality of a Yankee Genesis: a 
new account of the creation of the world the creation, that is, of a 
new world; an account this time with a happy ending for Adam its 


The American Adam 

hero; or better yet, with no ending at all; and with this important 
emendation, that now the creature has taken on the role of creator. 
It was a twofold achievement, and the second half of it was de- 
manded by the first. We see the sequence, for example, in the develop- 
ment from section 4 to section 5 of "Song of Myself." The first phase 
was the identification of self, an act which proceeded by distinction 
and differentiation, separating the self from every element that in a 
traditional view might be supposed to be part of it: Whitman's iden- 
tity card had no space on it for the names of his ancestry. The exalted 
mind which carried with it a conviction of absolute novelty has been 
described by Whitman's friend, the Canadian psychologist, Dr. R. M. 
Bucke, who relates it to what he calls Whitman's "cosmic conscious- 
ness." "Along with the consciousness of the cosmos [Dr. Bucke wrote], 
there occurs an intellectual enlightenment which alone would place 
the individual on a new plane of existence would make him almost 
a member of a new species." Almost a member of a new species: that 
could pass as the slogan of each individual in the party of Hope. It 
was a robust American effort to make real and operative the condi- 
tion which John Donne once had merely feared: 

Prince, Subject, Father, Son are things forgot, 
For every man alone thinks he has got 
To be a Phoenix and that then can be 
None of that kind, of which he is, but he. 

Whitman achieves the freedom of the new condition by scrupulous- 
ly peeling off every possible source of, or influence upon, the "Me my- 
self," the "what I am." As in section 4 of "Song of Myself": 

Trippers and askers surround me 

People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life, or the 
ward and the city I live in or the nation. . . . 

The sickness of one of my folks, or of myself, or the ill- 
doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or 

Battles, the horror of fratricidal wars, the fever of doubt- 
ful news, the fitful events, 

These come to me days and nights and go from me again, 

But they are not the Me myself. 

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am; 

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary; 

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable 
certain rest, 

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next, 

Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering 
at it. 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

There is Emerson's individual, the "infinitely repellent orb." There 
is also the heroic product of romanticism, exposing behind the mass of 
what were regarded as inherited or external or imposed and hence su- 
perficial and accidental qualities the true indestructible secret core of 
personality. There is the man who contends that "nothing, not God, 
is greater to one than one's self." 

There, in fact, is the new Adam. If we want a profile of him, we 
could start with the adjectives Whitman supplies: amused, compla- 
cent, compassionating, idle, unitary; especially unitary, and certainly 
very easily amused; too complacent, we frequently feel, but always 
compassionate expressing the old divine compassion for every spar- 
row that falls, every criminal and prostitute and hopeless invalid, 
every victim of violence or misfortune. With Whitman's help we could 
pile up further attributes, and the exhaustive portrait of Adam would 
be composed of a careful gloss on each one of them: hankering, gross, 
mystical, nude; turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and breed- 
ing; no sentimentalist, no stander above men and women; no more 
modest than immodest; wearing his hat as he pleases indoors and out; 
never skulking or ducking or deprecating; adoring himself and adoring 
his comrades; afoot with his vision, 

Moving forward then and now and forever, 
Gathering and showing more always and with velocity, 
Infinite and omnigenous. 

And announcing himself in language like that. For an actual illustra- 
tion, we could not find anything better than the stylized daguerreo- 
type of himself which Whitman placed as the Frontispiece of the first 
edition. We recognize him at once: looking with side-curved head, 
bending an arm on the certain rest of his hip, evidently amused, com- 
placent, and curious; bearded, rough, probably sensual; with his hat 

Whitman did resemble this Adamic archetype, according to his 
friend John Burroughs. "There was a look about him," Burroughs re- 
membered, "hard to describe, and which I have seen in no other face, 
a gray, brooding, elemental look, like the granite rock, something 
primitive and Adamic that might have belonged to the first man." The 
two new adjectives there are "gray" and "brooding"; and they belong 
to the profile, too, both of Whitman and of the character he drama- 
tized. There was bound to be some measure of speculative sadness in- 
herent in the situation. Not all the leaves Whitman uttered were joy- 
ous ones, though he wanted them all to be and was never clear why 


The American Adam 

they were not. His ideal image of himself and it is his best single 
trope for the new Adam was that of a live oak he saw growing in 

All alone stood it and the mosses hung down from the 

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous 

leaves of dark green, 
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of 


But at his most honest, he admitted, as he does here, that the condi- 
tion was somehow unbearable: 

I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone 
there without a friend near, for I knew I could not. . . . 

And though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary 
in a wide flat space, 

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover 

I knew very well I could not. 

Adam had his moments of sorrow also. But the emotion had nothing 
to do with the tragic insight; it did not spring from any perception of 
a genuine hostility in nature or lead to the drama of colliding forces. 
Whitman was wistful, not tragic. We might almost say that he was 
wistful because he was not tragic. He was innocence personified. It is 
not difficult to marshal a vast array of references to the ugly, the gory, 
and the sordid in his verses; brought together in one horrid lump, they 
appear as the expression of one who was well informed about the 
shabby side of the world; but though he offered himself as "the poet 
of wickedness" and claimed to be "he who knew what it was to be 
evil," every item he introduced as vile turns out, after all, to be mere- 
ly a particular beauty of a different original coloration. "Evil propels 
me and reform of evil propels me, I stand indifferent." A sentiment 
like that can make sense only if the term "evil" has been filtered 
through a transfiguring moral imagination, changing in essence as it 

That sentiment, of course, is not less an expression of poetic than 
of moral motivation. As a statement of the poetic sensibility, it could 
have been uttered as easily by Shakespeare or Dante as by Whitman. 
Many of the very greatest writers suggest, as Whitman does, a pecul- 
iar artistic innocence, a preadolescent wonder which permits such a 
poet to take in and reproject whatever there is, shrinking from none 
of it. But in Whitman, artistic innocence merged with moral inno- 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

cence: a preadolescent ignorance of the convulsive undertow of human 
behavior something not at all shared by Dante or Shakespeare. Both 
modes of innocence are present in the poetry of Walt Whitman, and 
they are not at any time to be really distinguished. One can talk about 
his image of moral innocence only in terms of his poetic creation. 

"I reject none, accept all, then reproduce all in my own forms." The 
whole spirit of Whitman is in the line: there is his strategy for over- 
coming his sadness, and the second large phase of his achievement, fol- 
lowing the act of differentiation and self-identification. It is the cre- 
ative phase, in that sense of creativity which beguiles the artist most 
perilously into stretching his analogy with God when he brings a 
world into being. Every great poet composes a world for us, and what 
James called the "figure in the carpet" is the poet's private chart of 
that world; but when we speak of the poet's world of Dostoevski's 
or Balzac's we knowingly skip a phrase, since what we mean is Dos- 
toevski's (or Balzac's) selective embodiment of an already existing 
world. In the case of Whitman, the type of extreme Adamic romantic, 
the metaphor gains its power from a proximity to the literal, as though 
Whitman really were engaged in the stupendous task of building a 
world that had not been there before the first words of his poem. 

The task was self-imposed, for Whitman's dominant emotion, when 
it was not unmodified joy, was simple, elemental loneliness; it was a 
testimony to his success and contributed to his peculiar glow. For if 
the hero of Leaves of Grass radiates a kind of primal innocence in an 
innocent world, it was not only because he had made that world, it was 
also because he had begun by making himself. Whitman is an early 
example, and perhaps the most striking one we have, of the self-made 
man, with an undeniable grandeur which is the product of his mani- 
fest sense of having been responsible for his own being something far 
more compelling than the more vulgar version of the rugged individual 
who claims responsibility only for his own bank account. 

And of course he was lonely, incomparably lonely; no anchorite was 
ever so lonely, since no anchorite was ever so alone. Whitman's image 
of the evergreen, "solitary in a wide, flat space . . . without a friend a 
lover near," introduced what more and more appears to be the central 
theme of American literature, in so far as a unique theme may be 
claimed for it: the theme of loneliness, dramatized in what I shall later 
describe as the story of the hero in space. The only recourse for a poet 
like Whitman was to fill the space by erecting a home and populating 
it with companions and lovers. 

Whitman began in an Adamic condition which was only too effec- 

The American Adam 

tively realized: the isolated individual, standing flush with the empty 
universe, a primitive moral and intellectual entity. In the behavior of 
a "noiseless, patient spider," Whitman found a revealing analogy: 

A noiseless, patient spider 

I mark'd, where, on a little promontory, it stood out, 


Mark'd how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding, 
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them ever tirelessly speeding them. 

"Out of itself." This is the reverse of the traditionalist attitude that, 
in Eliot's phrase, "home is where one starts from." Whitman acted on 
the hopeful conviction that the new Adam started from himself; hav- 
ing created himself, he must next create a home. The given in indi- 
vidual experience was no longer a complex of human, racial, and 
familial relationships; it was a self in a vacant, vast surrounding. Each 
simple separate person must forge his own framework anew. This was 
the bold, enormous venture inevitably confronted by the Adamic 
personality. He had to become the maker of his own conditions if 
he were to have any conditions or any achieved personality at all. 

There were, in any case, no conditions to go back to to take upon 
one's self or to embody. There is in fact almost no indication at all in 
Leaves of Grass of a return or reversion, even of that recovery of child- 
hood detected in Walden. Whitman begins after that recovery, as a 
child, seemingly self-propagated, and he is always going forth) one of 
his pleasantest poems was constructed around that figure. There is 
only the open road, and Whitman moves forward from the start of it. 
Homecoming is for the exile, the prodigal son, Adam after the expul- 
sion, not for the new unfallen Adam in the western garden. Not even 
in "Passage to India" is there a note of exile, because there is no sense 
of sin ("Let others weep for sin"). Whitman was entirely remote from 
the view of man as an orphan which motivated many of the stories of 
Hawthorne and Melville and which underlay the characteristic ad- 
venture they narrated of the search for a father. Hawthorne, an orphan 
himself and the author of a book about England called Our Old Home, 
sometimes sent his heroes to Europe to look for their families; Melville 
dispatched his heroes to the bottom of the sea on the same mission. 
This was the old way of posing the problem: the way of mastering life 
by the recovery of home, though it might require descent to the land of 
the dead; but Whitman knew the secret of his paternity. 

Whitman was creating a world, even though he often sounds as 
though he were saluting a world that had been lying in wait for him: 

The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

"Salut au monde." In one sense, he is doing just that, welcoming it, 
acknowledging it, reveling in its splendor and variety. His typical con- 
dition is one of acceptance and absorption; the word which almost 
everyone who knew him applied to his distinguishing capacity was 
"absorptive." He absorbed life for years; and when he contained 
enough, he let it go out from him again. "I ... accept all, then repro- 
duce all in my own forms." He takes unflagging delight in the repro- 
ductions: "Me pleased," he says in "Our Old Feuillage"; it is the 
"what I am." But the pleasure of seeing becomes actual only in the 
process of naming. It is hard to recall any particular of life and work, 
of men and women and animals and plants and things, of body and 
mind, that Whitman has not somewhere named in caressing detail. 
And the process of naming is for Whitman nothing less than the proc- 
ess of creation. This new Adam is both maker and namer; his innocent 
pleasure, untouched by humility, is colored by the pride of one who 
looks on his work and finds it good. The things that are named seem 
to spring into being at the sound of the word. It was through the poetic 
act that Whitman articulated the dominant metaphysical illusion of 
his day and became the creator of his own world. 

We have become familiar, a century after the first edition of Leaves 
of Grass y with the notion of the poet as the magician who "orders real- 
ity" by his use of language. That notion derived originally from the 
epochal change wrought chiefly by Kant and Hegel in the relation 
between the human mind and the external world; a change whereby 
the mind "thought order into" the sensuous mass outside it instead of 
detecting an order externally existing. Whitman (who read Hegel and 
who wrote a singularly flatulent poetic reflection after doing so) adapt- 
ed that principle to artistic creativity with a vigor and enthusiasm un- 
known before James Joyce and his associates in the twentieth century. 
What is implicit in every line of Whitman is the belief that the poet 
projects a world of order and meaning and identity into either a chaos 
or a sheer vacuum; he does not discover it. The poet may salute the 
chaos; but he creates the world. 

Such a conviction contributed greatly to Whitman's ever enlarging 
idea of the poet as the vicar of God, as the son of God as God him- 
self. Those were not new labels for the artist, but they had been given 
fresh currency in Whitman's generation; and Whitman held to all of 
them more ingenuously than any other poet who ever lived. He super- 
vised the departure of "the priests" and the arrival of the new vicar, 
"the divine litteratus"; he erected what he called his novel "trinitas" 
on the base of "the true son of God, the poet"; he offered himself as a 


The American Adam 

cheerful, divine scapegoat and stage-managed "my own crucifixion." 
And to the extent that he fulfilled his own demands for the poet as 
laid down in the Preface to Leaves of Grass and in Democratic Vistas 
Whitman became God the Creator. 

This was the mystical side of him, the side which announced itself 
in the fifth section of "Song of Myself," and which led to the mystical 
vision of a newly created totality. The vision emerges from those 
lyrical sweeps through the universe in the later sections of the poem: 
the sections in which Whitman populated and gave richness and shape 
to the universe by the gift of a million names. We can round out our 
picture of Whitman as Adam both Adam as innocent and Adam as 
namer if we distinguish his own brand of mysticism from the tradi- 
tional variety. Traditional mysticism proceeds by denial and negation 
and culminates in the imagery of deserts and silence, where the voice 
and the being of God are the whole of reality. Whitman's mysticism 
proceeds by expansive affirmation and culminates in plenitude and 
huge volumes of noise. Traditional mysticism is the surrender of the 
ego to its creator, in an eventual escape from the limits of names; 
Whitman's is the expansion of the ego in the act of creation itself, 
naming every conceivable object as it comes from the womb. 

The latter figure is justified by the very numerous references, both 
by Whitman and by his friends, to his "great mother-nature." We 
must cope with the remarkable blend in the man, whereby this Adam, 
who had already grown to the stature of his own maker, was not less 
and at the same time his own Eve, breeding the human race out of his 
love affair with himself. If section 5 of "Song of Myself" means any- 
thing, it means this: a miraculous intercourse between "you my soul" 
and "the other I am," with a world as its offspring. How the process 
worked in his poems can be seen by examining any one of the best of 
them. There Whitman skilfully brings into being the small world of 
the particular poem by introducing a few items one by one, linking 
them together by a variety of devices, running back over them time 
and again to reinsure their solidity and durability, adding further 
items and quickly forging the relations between them and the cluster 
already present, announcing at the end the accomplished whole and 
breathing over all of it the magical command to be. 

Take, for example, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry": 

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! 
Clouds of the west sun there half an hour high I see 
you also face to face. 


The New Adam: Holmes and Whitman 

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, 

how curious you are to me! 
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, 

returning home, are more curious to me than you 

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence 

are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you 

might suppose. 

This is not the song of a trovatore, a finder, exposing bit by bit the sub- 
stance of a spectacle which is there before a spectator looks at it. It 
is the song of a poet who creates his spectacle by "projecting" it as he 
goes along. The flood tides, the clouds, the sun, the crowds of men 
and women in the usual costumes: these exist in the instant they are 
named and as they are pulled in toward one another, bound together 
by a single unifying eye through the phrases which apply to them 
severally ("face to face," "curious to me"). The growth of the world 
is exactly indicated in the increasing length of the lines; until, in the 
following stanza, Whitman can observe a "simple, compact, well- 
join'd scheme." Stabilized in space, the scheme must now be given 
stabilizing relations in time; Whitman goes on to announce that 
"fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an 
hour high" (the phrase had to be repeated) "a hundred years hence, 
or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them." With the 
world, so to speak, a going concern, Whitman is able now to summon 
new elements into existence: sea gulls, the sunlight in the water, the 
haze on the hills, the schooners and sloops and ships at anchor, the 
large and small steamers, and the flags of all nations. A few of the con- 
spicuous elements are blessed and praised, in an announcement 
(stanza 8) not only of their existence but now rather of the value they 
impart to one another; and then, in the uninterrupted prayer of the 
final stanza (stanza 9 the process covers nine stanzas, as though it 
were nine months) each separate entity is named again as receiving 
everlasting life through its participation in the whole: 

Flow on river! flow with the flood-tide, and 

ebb with the ebb-tide! 
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg'd waves! 

And so on: until the mystery of incarnation has been completed. 



The Fortunate Fall: The Elder 
James and Horace Bushnell 

There is in short no condition of trial which after all is 
seen to be so utterly forbidding and hopeless as just this 
state of Adam ic innocence. 

HORACE BUSHNELL, Nature and the Supernatural (1858) 

WHITMAN'S favorite identifying word for the creatively expansive 
self was "cosmos," and in the cosmos of Leaves of Grass hopeful- 
ness seemed to have exhausted itself in the plenitude of its own crea- 
tion. It must have seemed that nothing more could be said about 
novelty, innocence, and the construction of a new world; the last word 
must have been uttered, especially since every word in the language 
had been employed in the utterance. Yet there was a dialogue going 
on with respect to the Adamic ideal, though Whitman remained deaf 
to the other voices in it. The protective agreement of Holmes and 
Lowell that the poetry of Whitman was elaborate humbug did not 
carry the discussion much further, still less the strictures of the incor- 
rigibly nostalgic or the merely prudish. But the deeper rhythms of a 
genuine conversation a fruitful exchange of insights may be heard 
in the response of a man like the elder Henry James. 

When a Mrs. Caroline Tappan asked him why he, too, did not "like 
Walt Whitman raise [his] barbaric yawp over the roofs of all the 
houses," James tried to explain that "it is because I am not yet a 
'cosmos* as that gentleman avowedly is, but only a very dim nebula, 
doing its modest best, no doubt, to solidify into cosmical dimensions." 
Between the nebular and the cosmic condition, James suggested, there 
had to occur a grand tragic transfiguring experience that Whitman 
had not sensed or even approached. Cosmoses, he thought, "are des- 
tined to a life of such surprising changes that you may say their career 
is an incessant disavowal of their birth." Whitman, he hinted, had 


The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

after all not gone far enough, though he had probably tried to go too 
fast. James himself preferred "to be knocked about for some time yet 
and vastated of my natural vigor, than to commence cosmos and 
raise the barbaric yawp/' 

James was perhaps the most energetically hopeful man of his gen- 
eration, with a hope, so to speak, exploding out of the tensions lying 
behind it. He was possessed of a transcendent cheerfulness derived 
from the experience and the full knowledge of tragedy. His cheerful- 
ness was consequently less fragile and more solid than the buoyant 
innocence of the party of Hope. Along with a very few others, James 
suggested how the drama of Adam should proceed, or how, to put it 
differently, the young culture should finally achieve its maturity. 
James was convinced that the story was not yet finished. 

This is to say and it was the elder James's conscious intention 
that he began his account of the representative American spiritual 
adventure where the professedly hopeful left off. His observations 
about some of them indicate as much: he referred to Emerson as his 
fair un fallen friend, and he decided later about Thoreau that he was 
"literally the most childlike, unconscious and unblushing egotist it has 
ever been my fortune to encounter in the ranks of manhood." The 
phrases build into a partial statement of James's program for Adam: 
for in order to enter the ranks of manhood, the individual (however 
fair) had to/#//, had to pass beyond childhood in an encounter with 
"Evil," had to mature by virtue of the destruction of his own egotism. 
James's entire intellectual effort the whole burden of what his wife 
and his children affectionately and vaguely called "father's ideas" 
may be described as an immense salvaging of the American Adam. 
For unless he were salvaged, James felt, he would never be saved; and, 
unlike Whitman or Thoreau, James did believe that the moral prob- 
lem was salvation rather than self-development. 

In drawing up his definition of human experience, James frequently 
employed the metaphor of Adam, and even more of Adam and Eve. 
His immediate source appears to have been the writings of Emmanuel 
Swedenborg, who identified the creature prior to moral consciousness 
as Adam, and that consciousness itself as Eve, reading the Book of 
Genesis as a darkly mythic report on the psychological history of 
Everyman. James's relation to Swedenborg was comparable to Mel- 
ville's involvement with Shakespeare; it was a private understanding 
rather than an influence; the Sweden borgians excommunicated James 
regularly. But Swedenborg's use of the Adamic figure appealed to 
James because he himself was committed to "creation" as the prin- 


The American Adam 

ciple and secret of interpretation, so that he too returned time after 
time to an exegetical wrestling with the first book of the Old Testa- 
ment the creation of the world and the story of Adam. 

The figure also appealed to James because he was so alert to the 
Adamic aspirations in the American world around him. This indeed 
was the world he was primarily talking about; everything he wrote 
was directed to the urgency of the immediate situation; and it was a 
daily paradox, which evidently almost never depressed him, that his 
devoted analyses of the spiritual condition of his readers were so rarely 
listened to. Reading his pages today, we cannot fail to hear behind 
those dialectical rumblings the unmistakable sound of a gigantic idea; 
but in his own time he was drowned out by the hopeful clamor, and 
the image he reminds us of as he thunders on is that of Mynheer 
Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, delivering his oration beside a 

James's vocabulary was, of course, partly to blame for the blank in- 
comprehension which usually greeted him. One understands the em- 
barrassment of his son William, in his long introductory essay to the 
Literary Remains of his father: "I beseech the reader ... to listen to 
my stammering exposition in a very uncritical frame of mind. Do not 
squeeze the terms or the logic too hard!" The same plea should precede 
even the present brief statement of his notions about innocence and 
evil: they are close to the center of his thought, but the center is a 
dense enigma. Yet the very quality of James's "difficulty" helps to 
make him agonizingly contemporary. He was the intimate friend of 
Holmes, of Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, as well as of 
Emerson and Thoreau; and he has left us one of the most perceptive 
paragraphs we have about Nathaniel Hawthorne; in several respects, 
nonetheless, he is closer to us than he was to them. This is not to imply 
that he was more important than his fellows, for it is in the frustrated 
violence of his inarticulateness that he most resembles us. 

Looking at the hopeful ideal of the solitary innocent, James was 
struck (as we have been) by its vulnerability; he felt in advance the 
destitution of the isolated private personality. In attempting to ar- 
ticulate his feeling, he was confronted (as we are) by a swarm of con- 
flicting vocabularies rival accounts of human nature and human 
destiny, the religious and the psychological and all the others. For 
James, there were the systems of Swedenborg, Fourier, and Lamarck, 
as for us there are, among others, Freud, Marx, and Einstein. And it 
is precisely in James's attitude toward those various systems with 
their various symbols that we see ourselves: in his reluctance to 

1 56! 

The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

hoose among them, in his insistence that all symbols from whatever 
ource were veiled and interchangeable metaphors, faint signs of a 
rue fact about humanity. So by "history" he did not exactly mean 
istory as the historians use that term; nor by "sin" and "evil" did he 
hink to denote sin and evil as the theologians do; and "God" was not, 
trictly speaking, God, but humanity, though not humanity either in 
^s customary sense. 

In the eighteen fifties, when there was a revival of faith in the rela- 
ion of language to reality and terms were still believed to determine 
omething, James's language seemed to his readers to be pushing the 
quivocal to the point of the irresponsible. A century later, when the 
lultiplication of languages has led to the general uselessness of any 
ne of them, and to a public distrust of all public language as such, 
fhen we resort more and more to fables, gestures and parables, the 
lethod of the elder James may be recognized at once and has a claim 
n our sympathy. For he too took every collection of conventional 
igns as an indistinct fable. And the fable he most passionately re- 
urned to was that of the birth, death, and rebirth of the new Adam. 

James looked forward with no less assurance than Emerson and 
Vhitman to a human achievement of perfection ; but the signal differ- 
nce between James and his un fallen friends is indicated by his state- 
icnt (in the letter about Whitman) that the perfection he had in mind 
/as one "to which manifestly no one is born, but only r^-born." His 
talics emphasized the same conviction in the sentence which followed: 
[ We come to such states not by learning, only by unlearning' 9 What 
tad to die, what had to be unlearned, was the proposition, writ so 
xtensively in Leaves of Grass, that the individual was the source of 
iis own being. "He lived and breathed," William was to say about his 
ather, "as one who knew he had not made himself." This was the 
.nowledge which led him to his major principles: principles which, 
ike the impulse behind them, were less intellectual concepts than (in 
Villiam's words) "instinct and attitude, something realised at a stroke 
,nd felt like a fire in the breast." Such knowledge, moreover, was an 
ccomplishment, gained through a kind of suffering so comprehensive 
hat it might accurately be called a kind of death. Of his many nar- 
ations of this liberating tragedy, perhaps the most succinct occurs in 
Society the Redeemed Form of Man (1879): 

The only hindrance to men's believing in God as a creator is their inability 
o believe in themselves as created. Self-consciousness, the sentiment of per- 
onality, the feeling I have of life in myself, absolute and underived from any 
ther save in a natural way, is so subtly and powerfully atheistic, that, no 


The American Adam 

matter how loyally I may be taught to insist upon creation as a mere tradi- 
tional or legendary fact, I never feel inclined personally to believe in it, save 
as the fruit of some profound intellectual humiliation or hopeless inward 
vexation of spirit. My inward afflatus from this cause is so great, I am con- 
scious of such superabounding personal life, that I am satisfied, for my own 
part at least, that my sense of self-hood must in some subtle exquisite way 
find itself wounded to death find itself become death, in fact, the only death I 
am capable of believing in before any genuine resuscitation is at all prac- 
ticable for me. 

This was the view of human development that motivated James's 
repeated observation that "the first and highest service which Eve 
renders Adam is to throw him out of Paradise." James regarded the 
contemporary ideal of man as Adam in Paradise as adolescent rubbish; 
"every man who has reached even his intellectual teens," he wrote, 
"begins to suspect that life is no farce . . . that it flowers and fructifies 
on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths"; and he trained 
his most trenchant rhetoric on the Adamic figure. The heroic and win- 
some hero of the idealists appeared, under the eye of the elder James, 
as "a dull, somnolent, unconscious clod," as an "innocent earthling," 
as "imbecile, prosaic, unadventurous." James clung to the older end- 
ing of the story of creation, just as he continued to prefer the old 
"virile" pessimistic spirit of religion to the "cuddling-up-to-God" of 
the "feeble Unitarian sentimentality." In the Book of Genesis he 
found an allegory of every individual's spiritual adventure, of every- 
one, that is, who had the energy to grow up. Growing up required the 
individuating crisis which in Genesis is dramatized as the fall of Adam: 
the fatal, necessary quickening within the unconscious chunk of inno- 
cence of the awareness of self. 

The capital sin in the Jamesian universe was just this exclusive 
^^-consciousness, egotism, "proprium," or "selfhood," as he various- 
ly labeled it. This was about as far as many personalities had the 
power to travel; this was, for example, the limit of Thoreau's accom- 
plishment; it was about as far as the American culture had come: but 
James watched expectantly for that "transformation-scene in human 
affairs" (in his son Henry's phrase) which would affect the drama of 
the culture and which might be observed in the private history of cer- 
tain individuals. That transformation-scene, the second and greater 
crisis in experience, led from total self-distrust to a rebirth of the per- 
sonality as a social being: one might say, to rebirth as a citizen of the 
holy and glorious city of James. The new form of man, "the redeemed 
form of man," was society; only the sin made possible the rebirth; 


The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

and, for all its tragedy, it was a necessary sin, and a subject for re- 

James himself had undergone the entire complex experience, from 
an early self-assertiveness, through the fearful evening in England in 
the spring of 1844 when he was smitten by "a perfectly insane and 
abject fear" which reduced him "from a state of firm, vigorous, joyful 
manhood to one of almost helpless infancy," to a far more vigorous 
new life dedicated to preaching his own brand of socialism. It was in 
the light of his own recollections that James could announce the ine- 
luctable requirement of a tragic/^// in such robustly hopeful accents. 

He examined the alternative hypothesis, which seemed to motivate 
the expressions and the conduct of the Adamists. Supposing, James 
asked, that their dream was a true dream and that men, in America 
or anywhere else, were truly sinless, truly exempt from the temptation 
and the fall. The condition they would enjoy would in that case, how- 
ever pleasant, be aimless and "horticultural"; there would be no rise 
and no ambition to rise to the nobler condition of genuine manhood. 
The inadequacy of Adamism was eloquently set forth: 

In Adam, then, formed from the dust and placed in Eden, we find man's 
natural evolution distinctly symbolized his purely instinctual and passional 
condition as winning and innocent as infancy no doubt, but also, happily, 
quite as evanescent. It is his purely genetic and premoral state, a state of 
blissful infantile delight unperturbed as yet by those fierce storms of the in- 
tellect which are soon to envelope and sweep it away, but also unvisited by a 
single glimpse of that Divine and halcyon calm of the heart in which these 
hideous storms will finally rock themselves to sleep. Nothing can indeed be 
more remote (except in pure imagery) from distinctively human attributes, 
or from the spontaneous life of man, than this sleek and comely Adamic con- 
dition, provided it should turn out an abiding one: because man in that case 
would prove a mere dimpled nursling of the skies, without ever rising into the 
slightest Divine communion or fellowship, without ever realising a truly 
Divine manhood and dignity. 

That paragraph (it is from Christianity the Logic of Creation [1857]) 
condenses one of the most telling critiques ever formulated of an en- 
during phase of the American cultural temperament. And its tone is 
no less revealing than its content. There was nothing in James of that 
inverted pride in evil that has become almost the national counterpart 
of the continuing claim of innocence. Someone remarked to a friend 
of his that James puzzled him because "if he has a preference it is for 
evil"; but James's response to the conventional embrace of despair 
was summed up in a comment on Carlyle (Carlyle who, according to 
James's correspondent, pronounced "his usual putrid theory of the 


The American Adam 

universe" in a series of remarks "interpolated with convulsive laugh- 
ter"): "Never was anything more false than this worship of sorrow by 
Carlyle; he has picked it up out of past history and spouts it for mere 
display ... it is the merest babble." James escaped the sterilities of 
both sides the arrested development of infantile innocence and the 
premature old age of a paralyzing absorption with sin by seeing the 
moral problem in unvaryingly dramatic terms: as a process, a story, 
with several grand climacterics. 

It was this sense of a plot in experience that gave manifest sincerity 
to his account of the Fall of Adam's fall and the fall of "every son of 
Adam" as essentially fortunate. "Any one with half an eye," he 
wrote, "can see . . . that 'Adam's fall,' as it is called, was not that 
stupid lapse from the divine favor which it has vulgarly been reputed 
to have been, but an actual rise to the normal human level." He went 
on: "We certainly may, if we like, continue to vote this manly act of 
Adam disastrous . . . but to the deathless immortal part of man . . . 
it is anything but disastrous. It is an every way upward step indeed, 
pregnant with beatific consequences. . . . And accordingly every son 
of Adam . . . welcomes this puny, silly death, which inwardly is his 
proper consciousness, as his inevitable and unconscious resurrection to 
life." James's picture of the falling and the fallen was lit up at each 
instant by the radiance of the vita nuova which the "silly death" alone 
made possible. 

But as we read these passages, we recover some of our original re- 
gret over the perverseness of his language. It was an extraordinarily 
private language; in his manipulation of it, James shows us the Emer- 
sonian man, spontaneously marking great truths with no regard what- 
ever for their diversified historical formulations. His friend Garth 
Wilkinson indicated an important difference between himself and 
James when he acknowledged his own insistent attention to history. 
And we are not helped by James's habit of assaulting past doctrines 
in terms that suggest he must be thinking about their opposites. Even 
his son William, not the most dependable guide to intellectual history, 
had to comment upon his father's remarkable ignorance of the past: 
an ignorance which partly prevented him from communicating his 
analysis of the present. 

For what James had hit on by the sheer force of his speculation was 
a variation on a very ancient theme: the theme of the "fortunate 
fall." In the history of Christian theology, the theme can be traced 
back almost to the fourth century A.D., and its most enduring formu- 
lation came in the medieval hymn which is sung during the Holy 


The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

Saturday Mass. 1 The hymn is exultant; it is known, indeed, as the 
"Exultet"; it is the most poetic and the most transcendently hopeful 
answer that Christianity ever contrived to the old puzzle about the 
existence of evil in a world created by a benevolent God. "O felix 
culpa!" the hymn exclaims; "quae talem et tan turn meruit habere 
redemptorem" ("O happy sin! to deserve so great a redeemer")* The 
theological implication is: that happiness may be predicated of the sin 
because, as a consequence of it, the world was enlarged and enlightened 
through the figure of the Redeemer and the joy of the Atonement. It 
is the imputation to the human event of the quality of the divine ac- 
tion. And the hymn thus paradoxically rejoices in the enforced depar- 
ture of Adam from Eden: "O certe necessarium Adae peccatum" 
certainly Adam's sin was necessary. 

The Christian suggestion teeters on the verge of heresy, and, for all 
its cheerfulness, it has always made its proponents uneasy. But as a 
metaphor in the area of human psychology, the notion of the fortunate 
fall has an immense potential. It points to the necessary transforming 
shocks and sufferings, the experiments and errors in short, the expe- 
rience through which maturity and identity may be arrived at. This 
was just the perception needed in a generation that projected as one 
of its major ideals the image of man as a fair unfallen Adam. The 
claims of newborn innocence for the individual in America inevitably 
elicited the response that innocence is inadequate for the full reach of 
human personality; that life, in James's words, "flowers and fructifies 
. . . out of the profoundest tragic depths." The ancient theme of the 
fortunate fall might have conveyed James's meaning with weight and 

How it might do so has been demonstrated in a later day by the 
extraordinarily dense little statement of dreaming Earwicker in 
Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "O foenix culprit! ex nickylow malo comes 
micklemassed bonum." Some of the nearly endless suggestions and 
combinations there are the following: that out of evil (malo), though 
it is related to the devil (nick) and is itself a nothingness (nickylow 
nihilo), comes a vastness (mickle, mass) of good; a good symbolized 

1. See the essay, "Milton and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall," in Arthur 0. 
Lovejoy, Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore, 1948). Professor Lovejoy begins by 
quoting some lines from Paradise Lost (Book XII, 11. 462 ff.), beginning with Adam's 
response to the Archangel Michael: "O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense! /That 
all this good of evil shall produce, / And evil turn to good. . . . Full of doubt I stand, / 
Whether I should repent me now of sin / By me done or occasioned, or rejoice / Much 
more that much more good thereof shall spring." Professor Lovejoy then traces the 
history of this paradox from the early centuries up to the writing of Milton. 

The American Adam 

by Michaelmas. Through the experience of evil, the perpetrator of the 
culpa y the culprit, is reborn like the phoenix; and thus the culprit is 
happy after all (felix). 

Joyce was the very type of imagination in total communion with 
the whole of a many-stranded past. Henry James the elder, sharing 
his age's enthusiastic rejection of the past, was quite the opposite type. 
He had vaulted to the insight; but he lacked the language to articu- 
late it. James had none of the dour nostalgic belief in inherited de- 
pravity; he accepted the principle that men began like Adam. But he 
went on to ask whether men must remain in the state of Adam 
whether life had not more to offer than "this sleek and comely Adamic 
condition/' He could not clearly and finally answer his own question: 
perhaps just because the insight he had seized upon was essentially 
dramatic and could therefore be better described in action than ar- 
gued in syllogisms. The vocabulary he really needed was, one may 
hazard, the language of narrative literature. But James apparently 
never realized that something like a "fortunate fall" explained and 
justified in terms much like his own was central to the fiction of his 
friend Hawthorne and of Hawthorne's friend Melville. And he did not 
live long enough to read in his son Henry's novels a very comparable 
principle spelled out in extraordinary dramatic detail. 

But James was a philosopher and had a philosophic prescription for 
the troubles of the day. "I believe," he wrote Emerson in 1843, "Jona- 
than Edwards redivivus in true blue would after an honest study of 
the philosophy that has grown up since his day make the best recon- 
ciler and critic of philosophy." 

We can only dimly imagine the celestial indifference of Emerson to 
that sentence, which he perhaps took as some kind of misprint. No 
period could have seemed less hospitable to Jonathan Edwards than 
the age Emerson presided over. Edwards, who by 1858 had been dead 
for a century, was an alien figure in his own lifetime, and never more 
than when, in a document published in the year of his death, he 
undertook a defense of The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin. 
Edwards' statement of that doctrine had appeared bleak enough even 
to his contemporaries; and the hundredth anniversary of the publica- 
tion was celebrated, not with demands for a revival of Edwardsean 
theology, but with the jaunty assurance that the whole of Edwards' 
machinery had finally and irrevocably broken down. This was the bur- 
den, in that year 1858, of Holmes's poem, "The Deacon's Master- 
piece," in which the system of Edwards was likened to a "one-hoss 
shay" which collapses once and for all. 

The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

Nevertheless, it was in 1858 that there was printed a volume which 
went far to answer the prescription of the elder James: Nature and the 
Supernatural, the major work of a Hartford theologian called Horace 
Bushnell. Bushnell, in so far as he would be known at all, was to be 
known as a sort of genial Jonathan Edwards; and his book did in fact 
proceed from a critique of the two parties the hopeful and the nos- 
talgic, the idealists and the orthodox Calvinists to a reconciliation of 
their conceptions of individual morality. Less splendid a rhetorician 
than Henry James, but a good deal steadier and better grounded, 
Bushnell gave the soundest analysis of his age, for those who felt that 
Adamism was both the pre-eminent and the most dangerous illusion 
in contemporary thought. 

But the force of BushnelPs analysis of original sin and original in- 
nocence should be measured against the achievement of Edwards 


The theology of Edwards (1703-58) was a virile reaffirmation of 
the radical Protestant doctrines of the relation between God and man, 
grace and nature, dependence and freedom. 2 But it was a reaffirma- 
tion looking forward, not backward, rooting itself, not in the language 
and principles of scholasticism, but in the psychology of John Locke 
and the physics of Isaac Newton. Edwards took these "late improve- 
ments in philosophy/' as he called them, not in order to adjust them 
to religious principles adhered to by everybody, but in order to restore 
a tough-minded body of beliefs which the hopeful of his time had long 
been softening and sweetening. This audacious and double-edged en- 
terprise was what lent drama to Edwards' role: which was not only 
that of the tragic hero (with something like a tragic fall, when, due 
partly to his stubborn arrogance, he was expelled from his Northamp- 
ton pulpit in 1750), but that of the mediator; it was perhaps his at- 
tempt to mediate that gave rise to the drama. Confronted by a decay- 
ing Puritanism, on the one hand, and the new theories of knowledge 
and of nature, on the other, Edwards accepted the stupendous assign- 
ment of revitalizing the former by the insights gained from the latter. 
Edwards was not trying to set the clock back, he was trying to set it 
right. And it is exactly in this endeavor, and in the quality and scope 
of it, that we may locate his enduring importance, however we judge 

2. Every present and future student of Edwards must be primarily indebted, as I 
am, to Perry Miller's volume in the "American Men of Letters Series": Jonathan 
Edwards (New York, 1949). I have expressed my own admiration for this book in 
Hudson Review, spring, 1950, from which many of the remarks here arc taken. 


The American Adam 

the arguments by which he sought to carry it out. It was the design of 
the enterprise, more than its fulfilment, that the elder James must 
have had in mind as he meditated on the need for an Edwards 

Edwards stood for wholeness at a moment when heresy was becom- 
ing all the fashion. His opponents, of course, won the day, and even 
his satellites tended to betray him. The latter, over succeeding dec- 
ades, managed to preserve his system (which was really a system of 
tensions and balances) only by letting it congeal around a group of 
doctrines far less adventurous than those argued by Edwards; they 
introduced alternative modifications and fell to accusing one another 
of pantheism. They were the precursors of the party of Memory, but 
Edwards like James and Bushnell had the more flexible outlook of 
the tertium quid. The decline of Edwardseanism was due to the futile 
effort to combat the more appealing theories of the precursors of the 
party of Hope: men (like Charles Chauncy) whom Edwards coldly 
identified by their "talk of a prevailing innocency, good nature, in- 
dustry and cheerfulness." He ironically ascribed to them the following 
claim: "It must be understood that there is risen up now at length, in 
this happy age of light and liberty, a set of men of a more free and 
generous turn of mind, and of a more inquisitive genius, and of better 

Both these remarks occur in Edwards' last completed work, The 
Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended. Edwards did in all 
sincerity consider the doctrine "great," just as he could honestly re- 
gard the doctrine of God's sovereignty in "choosing whom he would 
to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased" as "exceedingly pleas- 
ant, bright and sweet"; to understand original sin was to grasp so 
much more of the total structure and motion of the universe, a great 
thing to do. As he defends it, consequently, he gives us less the im- 
pression of gloomy satisfaction in reducing a tentative sprightliness 
to renewed despair than of a bold extension of vision which insists up- 
on despair as the way toward "comfort and exceeding joy." Edwards 
implicitly charges the view of his opponents with a lack of richness, 
with being content with too little: this, he suggests, is true of the docu- 
ment he was particularly disputing (the Free and Candid Examination 
of Edward Taylor, an English theologian), and more generally of the 
"free and generous men" who spoke about good nature and innocency. 

One of the typical arguments of that school was that, after all, men 
performed more good actions than evil ones, that mankind on the 
whole displayed a fairly good disposition, that the emphasis on sin 

I6 4 I 

The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

was therefore exaggerated. To which Edwards replied that it was like 
declaring a servant good because "he did not spit in his master's face 
as often as he performed acts of service," or a wife because, "although 
she committed adultery . . . with the slaves and scoundrels some- 
times, yet she did not do this so often as she did the duties of wife." 
The trouble with the free and generous men, Edwards contended, was 
that they had not perceived the true grandeur of the question. 

Hawthorne would remark that reformers were one-eyed; Edwards 
indicated a beam even in the eye they had. Sin itself, he kept saying 
with every verbal device at his disposal, was nothing else than the 
operation of nature apart from grace: a condition into which nature 
relapsed at the moment of the Fall. Man's proper role was to act in 
every instance out of an entire communion with God: whatever he 
did of himself and for himself was sinful. This was not a threat, but a 
sheer definition, a definition which St. Paul and St. Augustine had 
also attempted. God, Edwards argued, originally implanted "two 
kinds of principles" in man: the inferior principles, such as self-love 
and normal human appetites principles collected under the word 
flesh and the superior principles, "wherein consisted the spiritual 
image of God, and man's righteousness and true holiness" which 
may be called supernatural. It was these higher principles which de- 
parted, or were withdrawn, at the Fall; what remained was "flesh 
without spirit." As for the principles of the lower kind, "they are like 
fire in a house; which we say is a good servant, but a bad master; very 
useful while kept in its place, but if left to take possession of the whole 
house, soon brings all to destruction." Normal human appetites are 
perfectly healthy when they are bound to the higher principles; turned 
loose on their own, they fester at once. To be satisfied merely with the 
natural powers was wantonly to give up the very answers to the mys- 
teries of existence. 

It is a special irony that precisely Edwards' mediating intention 
his strategy of "reconciliation and criticism" helped to defeat him in 
his own day. The doctrine which he defended was outdated and out of 
harmony with the dominant view and so increasingly unpalatable to 
the enlightened; and the scientific principles he urged in support of 
the doctrine were too far advanced for his opponents' conservative 

There is irony also in the failure of Edwards' attempt to answer 
persuasively the already popular arguments against the "imputation" 
to the very whole of mankind of a sin attributable only to the race's 
founder. The arguments of the opposition were perhaps surprisingly 


The American Adam 

like those Oliver Wendell Holmes and his colleagues were to bring 
forward a century later: they rested on the moral differentiation of one 
individual from another, and of one moment in time from another. 
How could the entire race, including generations not to be born for 
thousands of years, be involved with the behavior of Adam in Eden? 
In replying to the question, Edwards got into a metaphysical phase 
which he had thus far been able to avoid, having promised to stick to 
the verifiable facts, "lest any cry out metaphysics! as the manner of 
some is." But the aim of his brief metaphysical excursion was to dem- 
onstrate the substantial unity or identity of the race, in certain re- 
spects and for certain purposes. "The race," of course, taken as a 
progressive accumulation of individuals, comes into being bit by bit, 
moment by moment, year by year; but "the race" is nonetheless a 
meaningful phrase, and it is also true that the racial "many" exist as 
a unit everywhere and all the time. Indeed, its continuing existence is 
itself the gift of God, who is therefore fully warranted in treating the 
race as a unit, as something entirely present (for punitive purposes) 
in the one man Adam and at the instant of his fall. Edwards was chief- 
ly expounding the justice of God's so treating the race; but it was 
probably his vision of the unity, the wholeness, of mankind that his 
readers were least inclined to share. 

Nonetheless, Edwards was exploiting his view to reach an intolera- 
bly bleak conclusion. The unity he was asserting was a "oneness by 
virtue whereof pollution and guilt from past wickedness are derived," 
a oneness that "must account for guilt and an evil taint on any indi- 
vidual soul, in consequence of a crime committed twenty or forty 
years ago, remaining still, and even to the end of the world and for 
ever." A temperament working under different pressures and respond- 
ing to other needs would be able to find in the fact of racial unity an 
assurance not so much of guilt as of comfort: an antidote to loneli- 
ness, a stimulus to self-understanding. A hundred years after the pub- 
lication of Original Sin Defended and the death of its author, Horace 
Bushnell reconsidered the relation between human imperfection and 
the need for communion with history. Bushnell probed the resources 
of memory to discover an inviolable hope. 


Bushnell was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1802, resided for 
the major portion of his life in Hartford, where he was pastor of the 
North Church, and died in Hartford in 1876. His career, with a few 
exceptions, can be associated almost exclusively with Hartford, where 


The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

he worried the theologians, won an impressive following among his 
congregation and became the city's first citizen, and wrote his two 
most important treatises: Christian Nurture (1847) and Nature and 
the Supernatural (1858). 

What Bushnell had to say is less striking in isolation than in con- 
text. What is impressive is the dialectical power he brought to bear 
upon the contemporary discussion, a power which in fact helped to 
disclose the actual existence of a discussion. Bushnell saw it and helps 
us see it as a dialogue written in collaboration by many persons: a 
dialogue in which, as in a dialogue of Plato, attitudes and concepts 
were introduced, supported, tested, opposed, and eventually trans- 
formed. In the American dialogue too, as in a dialogue of Plato, the 
conception at issue has a sort of dramatic career, as though it were a 
surrogate for the hero of a ritual drama something to be challenged, 
purged, and renewed. That analogy has added force, since the most 
controversial conception in Bushnell's generation was precisely the 
heroic image of the American as Adam. The career of that image, 
and the discussion it stimulated, become clear to us when we encoun- 
ter a disputant who really had listened to what others had been 
urging. Few men in the century listened as thoughtfully and patiently 
as Horace Bushnell; and when the opposing sides had finished their 
speeches, he offered himself as mediator. 

His mediating enterprise, like that of Edwards, was expansive 
rather than reductive. He opposed unity, as he said in another connec- 
tion, which aimed "either to be huddled into a small inclosure, or to 
show the world how small a plot of ground we can all stand upon." 
He was a good dialectician, moving nimbly from the many to the one 
and back again, "questioning whether all parties were not in reality 
standing for some one side of the truth"; thus he was a bad party man 
and managed to vex all the parties at once. He was not surprised, hav- 
ing noticed in himself a "vein of comprehensiveness," when his most 
ambitious book, Nature and the Supernatural, was "pelted all around" 
one periodical condemning it for forsaking "the New Haven theolo- 
gy," while another "makes me a ninny for being in the New Haven 
theology." But, by 1858, Bushnell was more than accustomed to such 
partial readings and partisan attacks. 

He had understood the situation from the day of his ordination as 
pastor of the North Congregational Church in Hartford in 1833, when 
he saw himself being "inserted delicately between an acid and an 
alkali" the so-called Old School and New School of New England 
Protestantism "having it for [my] task to keep them apart and save 

The American Adam 

[myself] from being bitten of one or devoured by the other." His 
strategy for escaping either disaster was nicely suggested even earlier. 
N. P. Willis, the poet and journalist, who knew him as an undergradu- 
ate at Yale in 1827, recalled Bushnell teaching him the proper tech- 
nique for sharpening a razor, "drawing it from heel to point both 
ways," and thus making "the two cross frictions correct each other" 
an excellent method, Willis was to think, "for making the roughness 
of opposite sides contribute to a mutual fine edge." 8 

Bushnell's capacity for making the cross-frictions correct each other 
was, of course, the measure of his ability to disturb or disappoint 
everyone. "We never," he insisted, "come so near to a truly well- 
rounded view of any truth as when it is offered paradoxically" : a state- 
ment calculated to keep him in trouble. This is no doubt one of the 
several reasons why Bushnell has never been better known; for our 
intellectual and literary histories have for the most part been written 
by members of one or the other of the major parties Hope or Memo- 
ry and Bushnell incorrigibly employed each to extend its opposite. 

If the nostalgic were listening, he had hard words for them: "No 
man was ever inspired through his memory. The eye of genius is not 
behind. Nor was there ever a truly great man, whose ideal was in the 
past. The offal of history is good enough for worms and monks, but it 
will not feed a living man. Power moves in the direction of hope." 
That was delivered at Yale in 1843, by the man already known to have 
been seduced, like the infidels at Concord, by Coleridge's Aids to Re- 
flection and by the suspect German theologian, Schleiermacher. He 
was capable of declaring, too, in the midst of his colleagues' most 
strenuous scholastic term-splitting that "poetry is the real and true 
state of man," and to produce some of his best points by quoting, not 
from Calvin, but from Shakespeare, and setting them forth, not in syl- 
logisms, but in metaphors. When he urged his congregation to "em- 
brace the destiny of hope," it might have been Emerson speaking. But 
in speaking about Emerson, he had quite another text: 

Who is a finer master of English than Mr. Emerson? Who offers fresher 
thoughts, in shapes of beauty more fascinating? Intoxicated by his brilliant 
creations, the reader thinks, for the time that he is getting inspired. And yet, 
when he has closed the essay or the volume, he is surprised to find who has 
ever failed to notice it? that he is disabled instead, disem powered, reduced 

3. For these and other anecdotes see Theodore T. Munger, Horace Bushnell (Boston, 
1900), also the book by his daughter, Mary Bushnell Cheney, Life and Letters of 
Horace Bushnell (New York, 1880). Among the very few studies of Bushnell, I would 
mention the brief analysis of his theory of language, in Symbolism and American Litera- 
ture by Charles Feidelson (Chicago, 1952). 


The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

in tone. He has no great thought or purpose in him; and the force or capacity 
for it seems to be gone. Surely, it is a wonderfully clear atmosphere that he 
is in, and yet it is somehow mephitic. 

Bushnell's situation was not unlike that of Jonathan Edwards, ex- 
cept that by 1850 the free and generous spirit (the professors of "inno- 
cency") was greatly in the ascendance and found its only opposition in 
an immobile orthodoxy. Bushnell composed a penetrating critique of 
both parties, taking into account the "late improvements in philoso- 
phy" over the century since the death of Edwards and proposing a 
new scheme for reconciliation. His two most interesting books dove- 
tail skilfully. In Christian Nurture he exposed the defects of ortho- 
doxy, with asides to remind the reader of the contrasted dangers of 
simple hopefulness. Nature and the Supernatural examined the inade- 
quacies of idealism, with footnotes on the chilliness of orthodoxy. 

Bushnell's purpose was to show that the human personality ful- 
filled itself only through a classic drama of a fall and a regeneration, 
and that regeneration depended crucially on an organized and living 
tradition. Orthodoxy insisted so heavily on the Fall that it held the 
creature wholly passive in the process of redemption. Redemption, for 
the orthodox, was effected by a single shattering blast from heaven; 
nature was saved by being destroyed, and grace did everything. But 
if the orthodox gave too little credit to nature, the party of Hope gave 
it too much. The latter denied the Fall altogether, and so saw no need 
for those "organic powers" family, society, church which might 
co-operate in the regeneration of human nature. The two parties con- 
nived at a radical error: they took "every man as if he existed alone," 
without any "vital connection with the ties and causes, and forms, and 
habits, which constitute the frame of our history." One party ex- 
plored the purgatorial terror of the human condition; the other re- 
joiced in the self-expansion which that condition allowed. Orthodox 
and idealist alike thrust forth the individual moral nature to stand 
alone beneath the silent spaces: to be frightened by them, like Pascal, 
or to vanish lovingly into them, like Emerson. It is not easy to name 
a contemporary of Horace Bushnell who so shrewdly located the 
major American theme of loneliness at the crossroads of the two 
antithetical strains of the culture. 

Bushnell's critique of the Edwardsean view admitted its original 
merit in displacing "an era of dead formality" and in bringing in "the 
demand of a truly supernatural experience." But the nature of that 
experience, Bushnell felt, was nothing more than "a miraculous epi- 
demic, a fireball shot from the moon," and entirely on the outside of 

The American Adam 

life. He was quick, however, to distinguish his doctrine of "nurture" 
from the current enthusiasms for self-culture, the program of those 
"many who assume the radical goodness of human nature" and whose 
program, as Bushnell saw it, resembled a mere "vegetable process," the 
limp opposite extreme to Edwardseanism. Even if a child "was born 
as clear of natural prejudice or damage as Adam before his sin," Bush- 
nell remarked, "spiritual education . . . would still involve an experi- 
ment of evil, therefore a fall and a bondage under the laws of evil." 
The drama of human life "involves a struggle with evil, a fall and a 
rescue"; maturity involved "a double experience . . . the bitterness of 
evil and the worth of good." 

Those remarks are taken from Christian Nurture^ a book aimed 
principally at the supernaturalists and concerned with the tactics of 
regeneration: that is, with the way in which "history" could con- 
tribute to the process, and nature collaborate with grace. The judg- 
ment of Adamism it briefly suggests was expanded throughout the 
five hundred pages of Nature and the Supernatural, for this latter vol- 
ume was aimed at the most innocently hopeful and was thus con- 
cerned less with the tactics than with the factual necessity of redemp- 
tion. Bushnell explored the whole body of what he called "naturalis- 
tic literature," ancient and modern all literature in which "nothing 
supernatural is to be admitted," however lofty the sentiments or ideal- 
istic the doctrine. The naturalistic tradition had culminated, Bushnell 
thought, in mid-nineteenth-century America with the publication of 
Emerson's little book Nature. This was its perennial premise: "Re- 
demption itself, considered as a plan to raise man out of thraldom un- 
der the corrupted action of nature ... is a fiction. There is no such 
thraldom, no such deliverance." 

Rightly identifying that premise as the characteristic one of the 
day, Bushnell set out to refute it: to expose innocence as a dangerous 
fiction, sin and the consequent need for rebirth as the vital facts. The 
first half of Nature and the Supernatural comprises a dialectical scru- 
tiny of the many varieties of currently hopeful opinion, examined 
within a carefully established framework. Bushnell's framework in- 
cluded an elaborated distinction between the natural and the super- 
natural, between what Bushnell called "things" and what he called 
"powers," between necessity and freedom, evolution and regeneration. 
His terms suggest how much use he was making of "the philosophy 
that has grown up since [Edwards'] day": Bushnell was applying a 
post-Kantian vocabulary to problems he had grasped with the assist- 
ance of Coleridge. 

The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

But "sin" became meaningful, Bushnell argued, only within such 
a framework. The conception of supernature was essential to the defi- 
nition of sin: "the very sin of the sin is that it is against God." And 
since sin is a free lapse from the supernatural, only a power could act 
sinfully only a free agent, as against a "thing" controlled by neces- 
sity. Naturally speaking and everyone outside the orthodox camp 
was speaking naturally there was and could be no such thing as sin. 
From his larger viewpoint, Bushnell found three fatal flaws in the 
"naturalistic" outlook which propagated the ideal of human sinless- 
ness: it made life uninteresting; it was false; it was pragmatically 

The denial of the Fall the hopeful insisted was supposed to make 
life more cheerful; Bushnell was sure it succeeded only in making it 
duller. It was a denial of that human potential for evil which had 
made life adventurous precisely by making genuine moral crisis pos- 
sible. It was a failure to understand tragedy. The sustained American 
aversion for tragedy, then as now, was based upon an obscure connec- 
tion between tragedy and low spirits. Bushnell, pointing to the most 
enduring tragic dramas and tragic heroes, suggested that tragedy, by 
posing a real opposition and a real choice in human experience, was 
an affirmation of human dignity, and fundamentally optimistic. 
Adamism, Bushnell argued, by dissolving the opposition or absorbing 
it into a purely natural scheme, rendered life flat, colorless, undramat- 
ic, and boring. 

Like Jonathan Edwards, Bushnell brought forward a little of the 
enormous evidence, in the recurring disorders of the world, for a radi- 
cally imperfect human nature. The facts, of course, had to be admit- 
ted by anyone entering the discussion; but they had been explained in 
a number of ways, some of them contradictory but all tending to pro- 
tect the individual from any imputation of inherent and inherited evil. 
Fourier, for example, had traced all wrongdoing to faultily constructed 
societies and had recommended not more regenerative pressure but 
more political science. Strauss, the German theologian who was en- 
joying a brief popularity among the hopeful, had diagnosed the 
trouble as springing from individual mistakes; the race was absolved, 
the atmosphere was cleared, and an intensive course of progressive 
education was proposed. Bushnell was not hostile either to political 
science or to improvements in education; he had preached about the 
former and composed Christian Nurture in support of the latter. But 
he retained enough of the Edwardsean logic to believe that the causes 
indicated were hardly adequate to the cosmic, "steady" effects ad- 

The American Adam 

mitted; the causes were not to be dismissed lightly, but they were 
derivative, stemming from a single and a steady source. 

At this point Bushnell knew very well that he was confronted by 
the peculiarly dynamic American brand of Adamism: by the cumula- 
tive force of the living legend. For the party of Hope was often willing 
to grant the gloomy picture of the world and its history; it did so all 
the more cheerfully, exactly because it lent excitement to its claim 
that the New World was emancipated from the Old. It had long been 
a pleasure, in the fresh air of the new garden, to look across at a stale, 
corrupt, and dying Europe and to count up its burdens, as Noah Web- 
ster had done, contending that "in that country, laws are perverted, 
manners are licentious, literature is declining and human nature is de- 
based." The very motive force of the native enthusiasm was the as- 
sumption that, in Webster's next phrase, "American glory begins at 
the dawn"; that the individual in America was untouched by history 
and had somehow been created immediately, and not mediately or by 
way of the whole sorry race. He was not the most recent descendant 
of Adam, but rather a new Adam. 

Bushnell took note of these claims and regarded them with a wise 
and skeptical eye. In the first place, he reasoned, the probable condi- 
tion of the hypothetical first Adam, which the hopeful were so bent on 
rehearsing, was not at all so enviable as had been supposed. The con- 
dition was without doubt an uncorrupted one, pure and innocent and 
indescribably new. But it was, at the same time, an unsatisfactory 
condition, a "condition privative," lacking in the vast store of knowl- 
edge accumulated by man in the course of very long experience, happy 
and unhappy. 

The first Adam must have been limited in his nature by the "neces- 
sary defect of knowledge and consequent weakness of a free person or 
a power considered as having just begun to be"; and anyone who pre- 
tended to himself that he had just begun to be would be no less defec- 
tive, no less feeble. What Adam could not have known were those in- 
sights "as are gotten historically, one by one, and one after another, 
under conditions of time." Emerson, who believed the conditions of 
time to be transparently unreal, would have answered at once that the 
only knowledge worth having existed out of time altogether; it had, 
he would have said, nothing to do with history and was as instantly 
available to Adam as to anyone else, to the boy reading in the corner, 
or to Horace Bushnell. Bushnell admired the eternal laws almost as 
much as Emerson, but he did not follow the assumption that a mere 
glimpse of those laws made men virtuous. "The eternal law of justice 

The Fortunate Fall: James and Bushnell 

makes no one just, that of truth, no one true/' Bushnell wrote, anti- 
Platonically. What those timeless principles required, in order to 
make them humanly effective, was "a drill, in the field of experi- 

If the condition of innocent newness was wilfully devoid of under- 
standing, it was likewise woefully exposed to disaster. Supposing men 
were created "like so many Adams ... to exist independently and 
apart from all reproductive arrangements/' Would their no doubt per- 
fectly uncorrupted character be strong enough to hold its own in the 
world as it was constituted? For the real world was already fouled 
and disordered by the actions of the countless generations of men. It 
must therefore be "a frame of being wholly inappropriate to their new- 
created innocence." In that atypical awkward phrase, Bushnell point- 
ed to the dramatic situation which Hawthorne, Melville, and the 
younger Henry James would erect into a dominant mis-en-scene of so 
many of their narratives: the helplessness of the innocent in a world 
infected by ancient evil, the helplessness of the innocent abroad. 

Innocence would inevitably be struck down by the actual forces of 
such a world; and the very illusion which precipitated the catastrophe 
would work against recovery. The plight of the fallen innocent was 
sketched by Bushnell in merciless language: "Self-centered now, every 
man in his sin, and having no ligature of race and family affection to 
bind them together, the selfishness of their fall would be unqualified, 
softened by no mitigations. . . . Society there is none. Law is impos- 
sible. Society and law suppose conditions of organic unity. There is in 
short no condition of trial which after all is seen to be so utterly for- 
bidding and hopeless as just this state of Adamic innocence." Thus 
the dreary destiny of the individual behaving as though he were creat- 
ed at a new first moment of time; thus the ultimate cheerlessness of 
the ambition of primal purity. Bushnell moved on rapidly to explain 
that the hypothesis was luckily false, that the actual state of affairs 
was a great deal more hopeful. 

Fortunately, as it turned out, there had been a fall. Happily, there 
had been a sin. And, consequently, there had followed the long story 
of educative experience. All of that experience was at the disposal of 
each new member of the race. The new member inherited the corrup- 
tion, but he likewise shared in the wisdom. If he could never regain 
Adam's radical innocence, he need never regress to Adam's ignorance. 
Conscience was, after all, higher than innocence. Moral history and 
the energies of tradition gave Bushnell grounds for a more sub- 
stantial hope. 


The Narrative Image 

The master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the 
ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the 
moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the 
insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various 
secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic dis- 
dain disdain of innocence to be nothing but innocent! 
Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the cou- 
rageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have 
shared it, but he despaired of it. 



The Fable of the Critics 

The admirers of poetry, then, may give up the ancient 
mythology without a sigh. Its departure has left us what is 
better than all it has taken away; left us the creatures 
and things of God's universe. 

"Lectures on Poetry" (1825) 

THE hopeful were ready to support and anxious to illustrate the 
proposition in Emerson's The Poet (1844) that "the man is only 
half himself, the other half is his expression." An inseparable half of 
the hopeful program along with the renovation of the man was the 
refreshment of the word: so that it might utter the Adamic secret and 
contribute thereby to the Adamic career. Over the first half of the 
century there was a great deal of confused and repetitious talk about 
a "new literature," a "national literature." But the voices, discordant 
as they were, held a note of understandable urgency: for there was 
much at stake. It was not merely a matter of prestige; poets and 
novelists were not merely being summoned, in response to jibes from 
abroad, to enlarge the national supply of the beautiful. The new litera- 
ture was to be a reflection in language of the novel and healthy facts 
of immediate life. It was to be a poetic equivalent of the life for which 
it would also be a revelation, providing, like the Revelation, some clues 
by which to plot a course of actual conduct. 

In the critical probings of the hopeful, we may recognize a favorite 
undertaking of the present generation: the quest for myth, as it is 
called. But the myth being sought for was a sort of antimythic myth. 
The critics in Arnold's sense of those who prepared the ground for 
creative artists no doubt did call upon native writers to construct 
imaginative statements about the new world and disclose that world's 
transcendent meaning. To this extent there was a conscious search 
for myth. But as the world and its representative hero were fresh and 


The American Adam 

underivative, so also was to be the account of them. Artists were for- 
bidden to define their subject by analogies or recurrences; our Joyce, 
our Eliot, even our Yeats, would have been outlawed. In the new 
earthly paradise, a cleansing of the memory was prerequisite to the 
imaginative spokesman. 

The other manner of proceeding may be represented by James Rus- 
sell Lowell, who even in his jauntiest days, when he was hot from Har- 
vard, shared the European habit of defining the present by noting its 
affinity with some portion of the past: of finding release for energies 
stifled by one tradition in the liberating life of another. It was Lowell 
who made the most of the historic claim that the true predecessor of 
the Yankee was not the Augustan Englishman, but the Jacobean; and 
Lowell's invocation of a fresh and underivative literature was a com- 
mand to his countrymen that they "become my new race of more 
practical Greeks." This is the more familiar strategy of renaissance. It 
was exactly the strategy of that group in the European Renaissance 
that most resembled the party of Hope: the French poets calling them- 
selves "The P16iade." Those colleagues of Pierre Ronsard, "signing 
off" from a traditional church and championing a national literature 
concerned with the natural man, reverted for aid, almost as a matter 
of course, to the imitable masterpieces of Greece and Rome. Du Bel- 
lay's Defense et illustration de la langue franc oyse, the sixteenth-cen- 
tury French version of The American Scholar^ compiled check lists of 
ancient themes, genres, and even verbal devices for the aspiring native 
poet. And when neoclassicism had had its long day, the strategy pro- 
posed next (in an essay by Stendhal) was another backward shift of 
allegiance, from Racine to Shakespeare. 

Emerson, of course, in his dedicated effort to extend the horizon of 
his provincial listeners, spoke on many occasions of the value of the 
books of the past. But it turned out, under pressure, to be a pretty 
limited value, discoverable almost entirely on the level of talent and 
of "the understanding," a minor solace during "the humble Junes and 
Novembers of the soul," and not essential to the creative spirit. His 
most resonant advice to the American scholar, concluding the lecture 
bearing that name, was that he had "listened too long to the courtly 
muses of Europe" and that it was high time to listen now to the new 
and natural music of the new continent. These were the lines in the 
address that won it the title of the "declaration of literary independ- 
ence." But that very phrase suggests that it was independence which 
was being declared, and not alternative new cultural alliances. 

The instinct of the hopeful in so posing the creative problem may 


The Fable of the Critics 

well have been fundamentally sound. Foreign observers, anyhow, from 
Tocqueville to Auden have regularly reminded us that the European 
practice of apprenticeship and imitation in the arts so right and nec- 
essary/or the European can be fatal in this country. In America, 
they tell us, any work that tries to draw nourishment from any other 
is apt to choke to death in the process, though that reminder is itself 
a foreign judgment, and behind it there stirs a familiar anxiety lest 
we spoil for Europeans the image they comfortably possess of us. This 
much is obvious: that the serviceable relation between the individual 
talent in America and the European tradition is extremely delicate and 
painfully ambiguous. 

And the historic case is that the search for forms and fables by the 
party of Hope began with the assumption that new ones would have 
to be devised, after the old ones had all been discarded. "The old 
sources of intellectual excitement seem to be well-nigh exhausted." 
This in the words of the editor of the first competent anthology of 
American prose (1847) was the dominant attitude. And this in 
Emerson's graceful variation on the prevalent figure: "Adam in the 
garden, I am to new-name all the beasts of the fields and all the gods 
in the sky." 


The task of the new Adam as poet was at once grandiose and simple. 
According to one listener (in 1849), this is what the hopeful seemed to 
be saying: "We want a national literature commensurate with our 
mountains and rivers. . . . We want a national epic that shall corre- 
spond to the size of the country. . . . We want a national drama in 
which scope shall be given to our gigantic ideas and to the unparal- 
leled activity of our people. ... In a word, we want a national litera- 
ture altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like 
a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies." 

The speaker is not Walt Whitman, though the speech is a fair cari- 
cature by anticipation of some of the sentences in the Preface to 
Leaves of Grass. The speaker is Longfellow; or rather, it is a person 
named Hathaway in Longfellow's novel Kavanagh. And his inter- 
locutor a Mr. Churchill also anticipates one of the famous re- 
sponses to Whitman, when he reminds Hathaway that "a man will 
not necessarily be a great poet because he lives near a great moun- 
tain." 1 In the chapter-long exchange between the two men the brash 

1. Cf. Carlyle's remark that Whitman thought he was a big man because he lived 
n a big country. 


The American Adam 

spokesman for an "honest" and uninhibited nationalistic magazine 
and the genteel schoolmaster who is all his life to be on the verge of 
composing a romance in the great tradition Longfellow has given us 
an image of the typical failure of communication between the literary 
representatives of hope and memory. 

He has also, very likely, given us an image of the contradictory 
tendencies he noticed in himself. For if Churchill is no doubt closer to 
the familiar Longfellow, Hathaway was a part of him too, and so was 
the novel's hero, young Kavanagh, who was busy at that moment 
learning from the old masters in Italy that great art consists in the 
imaginative heightening of the immediate. These were the conflicting 
elements in the emergent culture, and we may expect to find symp- 
toms of each of them even in so nostalgic a writer as Longfellow; all 
the elements were at work in Hiawatha. This may be why Longfellow 
(surprisingly, as the story is usually told) remained friendly toward 
Margaret Fuller, even after she reduced him to the status of a minor 
figure, on the grounds that "he sees life through the windows of litera- 
ture"; for this is exactly what Kavanagh returns to say about Church- 
ill. Kavanagh is in some small degree confessional, as well as satiric; 
there is a little wistful sincerity in the otherwise clownish exaggeration 
of the nationalist's table-thumping conclusion: "We do not want art 
and refinement. We want genius untutored, wild, original, free." 

No one outside Longfellow's novel was talking quite like that 
unless it was Bronson Alcott, who talked as unguardedly as the Eng- 
lish language permitted. But Hathaway was merely a distortion and 
an extension of many a hopeful critic; and if he sounds a trifle ridicu- 
lous, it is because his raucous voice has lost the bold seriousness of 
much of what actually was being said. Emerson's appeal, for example, 
to the giant striding down from "unhandselled savage nature," to de- 
stroy the old culture and to build the new, was similar in kind to 
Hathaway 's view; and so was the question explored at the first meet- 
ings of the transcendentalists: why "on this titanic continent, where 
nature was so grand, genius should be so tame." Longfellow may have 
had in mind the unmodulated lines of Lowell, published the year be- 
fore (1848), in an all-out attack upon derivative writing launched at 
the peak of Lowell's hopefulness : 

You steal Englishmen's books and think Englishmen's thoughts, 

With their salt on her tail, your wild eagle is caught: 

Your literature suits its each whisper and motion 

To what will be thought of it over the ocean. . . . 

Forget Europe wholly, your veins throb with blood, 

To which the dull current in hers is but mud. 


The Fable of the Critics 

Lowell's program (he was to change his mind in a couple of years) 
for a total replacement of memory by hope "Forget Europe wholly" 
had been enunciated for more than half a century, though it had 
accumulated nervous intensity over the years. Similar sentiments had 
been advanced endlessly on lecture platforms and in the little maga- 
zines; they reached summits of pride, anger, and hope in Fourth of 
July orations. It was estimated somewhat drily, by Duyckinck's mod- 
erate Literary World (in 1847), that if all the documents relating to 
"this prolific text ... of a native authorship" were collected, they 
would constitute "a very respectable library." Lowell, in his Fable for 
Critics the following year, only contrived a sprightly digest of that 

The critical noise, however, was not all denial and protest; the con- 
tent of the new song was being hinted at simultaneously. A typical 
summary and message of hope may be drawn from the editorial in- 
troduction to Rufus Gris wold's anthology, The Prose Writers of Ameri- 
ca (1847). Griswold was the very type of insecure and uncreative 
hanger-on in the literary world; even his contemporaries recoiled from 
the shrillness of his support of novelty; Duyckinck commented that 
"the thought [of nationality in literature] seems to have entered and 
taken possession of [Griswold's] mind with the force of monomania." 
Griswold tried to dissociate himself from the "absurd notion . . . that 
we are to create an entirely new literature." "The question between 
us and other nations," he went on, "is not who shall most completely 
discard the past, but who shall make the best use of it." His summary, 
however, was an inventory of themes to be discarded: "Courage, such 
as is celebrated by the old poets and romancers, is happily in disrepute; 
Religion, as it has commonly appeared in the more elegant forms of 
literature, has not been of a sort that ennobles man or pleases God; 
and Ambition, for the most part, has been of a more grovelling kind 
than may be looked for under the new forms of society." Under the 
new forms, Griswold wound up, the principle of letters, as of life, 
religion, and politics, was to be and his volume illustrated the 
theme "Peace on earth and good will to men." 

The ease of the formula reflected the assurance Griswold shared 
with the hopeful that the period of protest was over, the creative mo- 
ment at hand. Yet in a peculiarly exasperating paradox, the very 
abundance of peace and good will in the new Eden seemed to be 
making creative activity almost impossible. The contention long had 
been that the new scene had been all too thoroughly cleansed of the old 
evils and the literature they produced. Without either the evils or the 

The American Adam 

traditions, the new poet was having a hard time as hard, we may 
judge in retrospect, as the new Adam striving to grow up. 


American critics who have worried the question of the adequacy of 
American life for art have regularly looked at the same evidence and 
returned the same verdicts. To take only a single instance: a relatively 
early exchange in the North American Review between Edward Tyrell 
Channing (in 1819) and William Howard Gardiner (in 1822). Their 
subject was the possibility of fiction in the new country; but what they 
had to say was relevant to narrative in the broadest sense, and it par- 
took of the same disquiet and the same hope that others would bring 
to the general discussion of "poetry." It is narrative or story that pri- 
marily concerns us: the dramatic value of the Adamic vision. 

Edward Tyrell Channing expressed his doubts about fiction in 
America on the occasion of a review of William Dunlap's biography of 
Charles Brockden Brown. Channing (1790-1856) may be reckoned as 
hovering on the fringe of the hopeful as much, anyhow, as his older 
brother, Dr. William Ellery. 2 It was Edward Tyrell Channing who, as 
Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, introduced 
Emerson, Thoreau, Parkman, and Holmes to an eloquence more 
supple and more suited to the temper of the day than the convention- 
al flourishes he made a point of rejecting in his inaugural discourse 
(1819). Channing's own style had little of the sense of urgency which 
would kindle the rhetoric of Thoreau and Emerson; but he was a 
mildly resolute guide to new directions; and his reservations about 
fiction did not arise from any nostalgic regret over the foreseeable 
drift of contemporary society. 

In Brockden Brown, Channing acknowledged a novelist of power 
and ingenuity, and for the sake of those qualities he was willing to put 
up with Brown's taste for the bizarre with the combustion and ven- 
triloquism of Wieland and the assorted somnambulisms of Edgar 
Huntly. In view of Brown's talents, Channing wanted to know why, 
only a decade after his death, he was already "so far from being a 
popular writer." He decided that it was because Brown had tried to 
get his effects out of native materials. And this led Channing to ex- 
plore the hypothetical reasons why the novel might not ever be born 

2. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the so-called "apostle" of Unitarianism, 
also had his say on the declaration of American literary independence in Remarks on 
American Literature (1830), published in "Old South Leaflets," Vol. VI. Dr. Channing 
rested his belief in a national literature on religious grounds. 

The Fable of the Critics 

in this country. A century later, Lionel Trilling explored in much the 
same way the hypothetical reasons why the novel might finally be 
dead. 8 The reasons tendered for both speculations are suggestively 
close and provocatively opposite. 

The difficulty, Channing thought, lay partly in the nature of actual 
experience; but it lay even more in the sense of experience in the minds 
of readers in the characteristic expectancy about the condition and 
behavior of men in the New World. Channing reflected on the ab- 
sence of "romantic associations" in the American mind; the phrase 
had a technical origin in Scottish aesthetics, but it stood for what 
would later be called the "tragic sensibility.*' "The difficulty of suc- 
ceeding in Brown's kind of fiction," wrote Channing, was due "not to 
the entire absence of romantic incident, situation and characters, but 
... to the want in his reader of romantic associations with the scenes 
and persons he must set before us." Romance for Channing was close- 
ly allied to darkness. What he regretted was the lack of the sense of 
darkness in the imagination of readers: moral darkness, and not mere- 
ly the darkness of dungeons and pits. Americans, he felt, were unable 
to recognize, in the dungeons they read about, an image of spiritual 
imprisonment which a man might experience in the Hudson Valley or 
on the banks of the Schuylkill. Americans, Channing observed, did not 
like to think about "the terrible power, dark purposes and inextricable 
toils of the contriver." For, as Channing went on in an especially 
luminous sentence: "The actions we esteem great or are prepared to 
witness and encourage, are the useful rather than the heroic, such as 
tend to make society happier, not such as disturb or darken it." In 
American eyes, life appeared to be fresh and flourishing, unincrusted 
by history and undistracted by doubts: "the laboring and the happy 
are seen everywhere and not a corner or a recess is secret." 

Though Channing underestimated the continuing pull of Puritan- 
ism as well as the steady attraction of the Gothic, there were ex- 
amples enough to substantiate his main thesis: among them, Emer- 
son's uneasy failure to make any sense of Hawthorne's stories and 
the noisy misunderstanding of Moby-Dick. The Adamic temper was 
usually not satisfied by such dark and desperate adventures. But 
alongside Channing's apprehensions of 1819 we may place the sugges- 
tion made in the mid-twentieth century by Lionel Trilling that the 
novel may be dead not because of an excess of peace, good will, 
happiness, and innocence, but because the image of evil is so overpow- 

3. "Art and Fortune," in The Liberal Imagination (New York, 1950). 


The American Adam 

eringly at work in our affairs that it has crowded every other image 
out of our vision. The imitation of an action (as Aristotle defined 
dramatic poetry) is an unrewarding undertaking whether life reveals 
too much good will or too much evil; for in the former case, action is 
unnecessary; in the latter, it becomes impossible. 

Channing pursued his inquiry to ask about the chances for fiction 
devoted to the society as it actually existed, the kind of fiction "which 
makes the fable subservient to the developing of national character, 
or of the manners, usages, prejudices and conditions of particular 
classes," and takes as its purpose "to present what exists/' Channing 
felt that if romantic fiction would probably not get very far because 
of a lack of shadows, the novel of manners was equally improbable 
because Americans did not yet have any. Romance stumbled over 
hope and innocence, realism was rebuffed by novelty. 

Channing wanted to be able to say, as Scott Fitzgerald could say, 
that the very rich were different from everyone else; but he had to 
admit that, up to date, they were only richer; they manifested none 
"of the exclusive spirit of an established order." This was to be the 
judgment of Henry James and a reason for his departure to the ar- 
tistically useful exclusiveness of European circles. Lionel Trilling 
makes the same point, suggesting that the class distinctions which 
Fitzgerald was able to exploit did not survive the financial disaster of 
1929. Channing, in 1819, thought it possible that the rich could in 
time become rich and strange and impure enough to be identifiable; 
but certainly they were not so yet. And as to the lower classes, they 
were merely the less rich. There were those sensible and industrious 
and indistinguishable men of whom he said that "to visit in their own 
home would please us more than to read of them in a novel." And, 
finally, there were the simply queer: those whose peculiarity "would 
not be found in character so much as in vulgarity of manners and 
narrowness of opinion." 

The sharpness of Channing's perception was, here as elsewhere, to 
some extent limited by the conventional terms of his discussion. He 
was quite right in supposing that the American scene was deficient in 
materials for an eighteenth-century English or Continental novel; he 
was wrong in suggesting that the scene contained no story at all. What 
his analysis reveals is not the lack of tension in the new society but a 
special kind of tension. It was a tension and Channing unknowingly 
makes us see it between the eccentric, on the one hand, and the un- 
differentiated lump of solid citizenry, on the other: the very stuff of 
Sherwood Anderson's poignant tales of the "grotesques." And it 


The Fable of the Critics 

would not require much development or shuffling of the elements for 
that tension to assume the more impressive shape of the one distinct- 
ly American narrative theme: that of the solitary hero and his moral 
engagement with the alien tribe. Such was to be the enduring fable of 
the American Adam. 


It was toward that theme that W. H. Gardiner, in a fumbling way, 
directed a reply to Channing, in an essay based on a review of the re- 
cently published novel by Cooper, The Spy (1821). Gardiner (1797- 
1872) is not remembered at all, except by very close students of the 
life of his friend William Prescott, the historian. But from Gardiner's 
few articles it seems that he was the most meticulous commentator 
on fiction before Poe. Like Poe, Gardiner was tireless in exposing er- 
rors in diction or slovenliness of narrative technique. Unlike Poe, how- 
ever, Gardiner's interest was principally in the creation of character, 
and not with the perfectly fulfilled fable. Faults of diction were fail- 
ures in the presentation of persons, not breaches in a total design. And 
so, despite pages of minute strictures, he was very heartily disposed in 
favor of James Cooper (who would not adopt the middle name Feni- 
more for another five years); for, even in his second novel, Cooper 
appeared to be vindicating American society for the artist, by finding 
in it the prototypes for living and memorable fictitious characters. 

Gardiner began his response to Channing by granting one of the 
latter's premises: that "the power of creating interest in a work of fic- 
tion, so far as it arises from the development of character, lies in this 
generalising principle which substitutes classes for individuals." But 
he flatly denied Channing's charge that America, having no classes, 
could provide no such individuals. In America, Gardiner boasted, 
there could be found "a greater variety of specific characters" than 
anywhere else in the world, and he illustrated the claim by listing a 
number of fruitful possibilities, in a passage less alive and sweeping 
but not much less cogent than the lines (in The Poet) in which Emer- 
son paraded before readers and writers the teeming ingredients for a 
great new poetry ("Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our 
fisheries, our Negroes and Indians . . . the northern trade, the south- 
ern planting, the western clearing," etc.). 

Here are some of Gardiner's potential "characters": "the high- 
minded vainglorious Virginian, living on his plantation in baronial 
estate"; "the active, enterprising moneygetting merchant of the 
East"; "the Connecticut pedlar . . . vending his notions at the very 

The American Adam 

ends of the earth"; "the long shaggy boatman 'clear from Kentuck' " 
who traverses the Mississippi or the Ohio; "the Dutch burgomaster"; 
"the white savage who roams over the remote hunting tracts of the 
West"; "the red native of the wilderness that crosses him in his path." 
It would be interesting to support that list and Gardiner's faith in the 
value of American life for art, by mentioning the works of fiction that 
since have centered on the adventures of one or another of the types 
suggested. 4 

But partly because of his subordination of action to character, 
Gardiner did not emphasize one recurrent aspect of these characters 
which we, today, are bound to notice: that is, the number of them who 
are outside society or detached from it. His peddler, his boatman, his 
white hunter, and his red Indian are essentially solitary individuals. 
Gardiner sees them in such settings as the East, "the ends of the 
earth," the wilderness; but he does not attempt to outline the repre- 
sentative experience in which any one of them might be caught up 
in which character might have the opportunity to announce itself. 

That was to be the very essence of the problem of American fiction: 
the invention of a story or plot imitating, as plots traditionally do, a 
genuine action. And since action, in this context, is the name we give 
to significant psychological or moral change, the problem can be stated 
thus: What kind of change is possible for the solitary figure surrounded 
by space? What is the imaginable career of Whitman's live oak? Or 
how it is the same question can character be brought into being 
and presented when the character is not primarily conceived as the 
perfection of widely shared qualities, good or bad, but rather as some- 
thing propelled by lonely, personal, and self-generated energy? In so 
far as American writers have solved these problems, we have had an 
authentic American fiction: a fiction which passes the condition of 
man through the perspective of a new society's potent solitude. 

4. We have, for instance, been given a broad choice among southern barons, by 
novelists from Simms to Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren; Dreiser has most effective- 
ly dramatized the money-getting hero in his chronicles of Frank Cowperwood. Cooper's 
spy himself, Harvey Birch, was the first of the peddlers, and the career of the later 
peddlers, or traveling salesmen, has been traced by writers as different as Eudora Welty 
and Arthur Miller. The shaggy boatman was already moving into legend, as Gardiner 
wrote, in the form of Mike Fink (died 1823?), while his image lies close beneath the 
surface of Huckleberry Finn and turns up again, maddened, in "the shaggy old whale- 
hunter" Ahab. The white savage and the red native were to battle their way through a 
whole series of novels, Cooper's tales of Natty Bumppo and Robert Montgomery Bird's 
Nick of the Woods (1837) being among the most readable of them and Faulkner has 
added his own curious and private history of their relations in his saga of the Chicasaw 
Indians and the McCaslin family. 


The Fable of the Critics 

Cooper himself, by no means so optimistic about the native re- 
sources for fiction as his admiring critic Gardiner, gave back one kind 
of answer to this question. In language highly reminiscent of Chan- 
ning and anticipative of Henry James, he observed the absence of 
materials in the New World ("no annals ... no manners ... no ob- 
scure fictions ... no gross and hardy offences") and noted that the 
few limited successes to that date (1831) were derived, not from the 
image of individuals in conflict, but from an engagement of "the uni- 
versal laws of nature." A few writers "have succeeded," he wrote, 
"precisely in proportion as they have been most general in their 
application." Cooper was emphasizing the difficulties as a way of gain- 
ing praise for any American writer who managed to get by them; it 
was so much easier to turn the trick in Europe. 

It was possible, however, to rejoice in the empty blankness of the 
American scene as the ideal condition for new writers: just as the 
ethical commentators could sometimes rejoice in the nonhistoric 
morning blankness of the moral atmosphere. Such was the happy ar- 
gument of William Cullen Bryant, lecturing in 1825 at the New York 
Athenaeum on "Poetry in Its Relation to Our Age and Country." 
After rehearsing the complaints of the faithless critics "Our country 
is described as peculiarly barren of the materials of poetry" Bryant 
went on to admit as a matter for good cheer that "this is not an age 
to give birth to new superstitions, but to explode and root out old." 
The admirers of poetry, he counseled, could give up the ancient myths 
without a sigh; for what remained was nothing less than life itself: 
"men and women . . . the creatures and things of God's universe." It 
was a response suggestively close in spirit to that given by Howells in 
the face of Henry James's inventory of American deficiencies for the 
writer. 6 

Bryant felt that the new literature could get along well enough not 
only without the ancient mythology, but without any mythology at 
all; the new myth would be devoid of myth. Nor was he alarmed at 
the thought of poetry dealing with "the universal laws of nature"; he 
was sure that those laws were the new Adam's closest neighbors. "Let 
the fountain tell me," he intoned, "of the flocks that have drunk at 
it ... let it speak of youth and health and purity and gladness ... let 
it murmur of the invisible goodness that fills and feeds its reservoirs." 

5. Howells replied that what was left was simply life itself and that the writer was 
therefore better off without that paraphernalia. 

The American Adam 

Bryant's fountain (he wrote a poem about it in 1838) may be graphed 
at the opposite pole from the magic well in Hawthorne's The House of 
the Seven Gables, with its ancient images and cunning reminders. And 
we may feel about his poetry in general, as Emerson did, that it was 
"a vase to receive and not a fountain to impart character'*; that, in 
Emerson's deft exploitation of the metaphor, the poetry was "femi- 
nine." Yet we must allow that Bryant was not indulging in mere 
sentimentality to any greater degree, anyhow, than other critics in 
the party of Hope. Bryant, faithful to his generation's vision, was in- 
terpreting that vision to the party, explaining what might be de- 
manded of a literature divorced from history and purged of memories. 
The hopeful fable, according to the vision, would deal with generalized 
man, invested with the generalized qualities of purity and gladness 
and invisible goodness: a sort of rarefied and beautiful blank. 


There yet remained something of a question about the shape of the 
fable, the story which would dramatize purity and goodness. There 
was still the question of what was the underlying action to be imi- 
tated. Perhaps the soundest guess about this was made by Tocque- 
ville, when, after listening to manifestoes like Bryant's and expres- 
sions of concern like those of Channing and Cooper, he formulated the 
fable which he foresaw the American writer limited to. 

Tocqueville's achievement, especially in his discussion of "Some 
Sources of Poetry among Democratic Nations," was essentially that 
of an uncommonly gifted reporter rather than of an inspired prophet; 
his prophecies, indeed, leave something to be desired. He put together, 
with remarkable lucidity, only what he heard on all sides; and it 
amounted to this: "Among a democratic people poetry will not be fed 
with legends or the memorials of old traditions," since democracy 
so Tocqueville inferred from a hundred interviews "gives men a sort 
of distaste for what is ancient." He detected all the difficulties that so 
resolute a rejection of traditions, conventions, and literary habits 
would produce; but he saw that when all those elements and aids had 
disappeared, something yet remained: man himself. The new subject, 
in Tocqueville's words, was to be "Man himself, taken aloof from his 
country and his age and standing in the presence of Nature and God." 

The career of man homeless, timeless, and alone came to this, as 
Tocqueville formulated the universal adventure: "Man springs from 
nowhere, crosses time and disappears forever in the bosom of God; he 
is seen but for a moment, wandering on the verge of the two abysses, 


The Fable of the Critics 

and there he is lost." That was perhaps as apt a summary of the fable 
which the critics were looking for as the evidence made possible. 
Tocqueville was not entirely easy about so abstracted a story, and he 
feared that the literature resulting might be too cloudy for comfort. 
But he very clearly exposed what remained when conventions had 
been set aside and the past forgotten. Something very like his brief 
story of the human adventure did indeed become the essential and re- 
curring anecdote of American fiction : that story or in the case of our 
greatest writers the story of that story. For what some novelists 
were to discover was that the story implicit in American experience 
had to do with an Adamic person, springing from nowhere, outside 
time, at home only in the presence of nature and God, who is thrust 
by circumstances into an actual world and an actual age. American 
fiction grew out of the attempt to chart the impacts which ensued, 
both upon Adam and upon the world he is thrust into. American fic- 
tion is the story begotten by the noble but illusory myth of the 
American as Adam. 

I8 9 1 


The Hero in Space: Brown, 
Cooper, Bird 

And you O my soul where you stand 
Surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the 
spheres to connect them. . . . 


IN SKETCHING the emergent fable urged by the critics on American 
writers, I have largely followed the hopeful line. According to the 
hopeful, "youth and health and purity" were suitable themes for the 
New World artist; man himself, seen in a time- free perspective, was 
the representative character ; and as for materials and resources, the 
American was instructed to "forget Europe wholly" and draw exclu- 
sively from the scene around him. Criticism, interpreted as a marshal- 
ing of resources for future purposes, is primarily a forward-looking 
affair, and a century ago that meant a fervently hopeful affair. The 
issue, moreover, was not very sharply drawn within criticism itself: 
the demand for underivative writing about the healthiness of Ameri- 
can life did not noticeably conflict with the continuing lectures and 
essays by Harvard professors on the unrecoverable splendors of the 
classical texts. And alongside both kinds of criticism, there lay in un- 
intrusive alertness the multiplying corpses of the imitative poems and 
stories stillborn almost daily in the newspapers and magazines of the 
country. These items were rarely scrutinized and rarely even attacked 
by the hopeful evangelists, who simply brushed them aside as they 
pressed for freshness and originality: "when," ran the recurring re- 
frain, "will our literature achieve its national independence?" 

In fiction it was quite the other way, at least in the only fiction 
which can still command our attention. If the liveliest criticism, as it 
developed, was persistently and even repetitiously hopeful, the best of 
our fiction has from the outset been neither exclusively hopeful nor 

The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

exclusively nostalgic, because it has been both. There were many 
dreary examples of fiction of both extremes. But the quality of any- 
thing like a genuine and enduring fiction could not help being "ironic": 
in the sense that all genuine fiction is, by nature, ironic. For fiction, 
whether comic or tragic, dramatizes the interplay of compelling oppo- 
sites: the real peeping around the corner of the illusory, or the real 
exploding in the midst of the apparent, in whatever terms of manners, 
psychology, or sheer picaresque adventure the novelist has seized 
upon. Forward-looking criticism asked for a narrative or poetic image 
of the grand illusion of the day: a new kind of hero in a new kind of 
world, to be characterized in new language. The novelists of power 
Hawthorne and Melville, above all did not so much meet that re- 
quest as comment upon it dramatically. They responded as the elder 
James and Bushnell responded; they found the narrative means to 
say: Supposing there were such a figure young, pure, innocent 
what would happen if he entered the world as it really is? 

The dialogue, within the realm of literature, was consequently be- 
tween theory and practice, between the critic and the creative artist. 
This is perhaps as it should be and as it undoubtedly still is. 

If there was a fictional Adamic hero unambiguously treated cele- 
brated in his very Adamism it was the hero of Cooper's The Deer- 
slayer: a self-reliant young man who does seem to have sprung from 
nowhere and whose characteristic pose, to employ Tocqueville's words, 
was the solitary stance in the presence of Nature and God. But after 
Deerslayer, there begins the march of those more complex and some- 
times tragic Adams of Hawthorne and Melville and Henry James 
those bright personalities who first come at us as Deerslayer does, but 
whose subsequent adventures dramatically test the Adamic fable of 
the critics, who pay the price of their own innocence, while revealing, 
as though by unconscious compensation, what could after all be made 
of those scanty original materials. 

The evolution of the hero as Adam in the fiction of the New World 
an evolution which coincides precisely, as I believe, with the evolu- 
tion of the hero of American fiction generally begins rightly with 
Natty Bumppo. I call such a figure the hero in space, in two senses of 
the word. First, the hero seems to take his start outside time, or on the 
very outer edges of it, so that his location is essentially in space alone; 
and, second, his initial habitat is space as spaciousness, as the un- 
bounded, the area of total possibility. The Adamic hero is discovered, 
as an old stage direction might have it, "surrounded, detached in 
measureless oceans of space." 

The American Adam 

That phrase of Whitman's, intended to describe his own soul, is a 
happy one, since it announces that same affinity between the ocean 
and the prairie the "wide, open spaces" which Cooper and Mel- 
ville would remark on and exploit, and on which Parkman also com- 
mented. At the same time, Whitman invests his metaphor with the 
note of sadness and loneliness which the spatial position must contain: 
the romantic yearning, authenticated and concretized by the solid 
facts of geographical and social life in America. The yearning, the 
ceaseless musing, venturing, and seeking, the uncertain gestures of the 
spirit which Whitman perceived, would eventually define the hero in 
space, after Deerslayer; and it was a small step from this loneliness to 
a darker fearfulness when hidden hostilities began to expose them- 
selves in the previously benevolent surrounding. Tragedy, in Ameri- 
can fiction, was generated by the impact of hostile forces upon the in- 
nocent solitary, who had sprung from nowhere, and his impact upon 

The next three chapters trace such a development, by looking 
rather closely at the half-dozen-odd novels wherein the successive mo- 
ments of the evolution are clearest because the novels themselves 
have, at least in some degree, the independent life of art. The present 
chapter concentrates on James Fenimore Cooper and especially on 
The Deerslayer; with that central emphasis followed by a rapid glance 
at a considerably less-well-known writer and novel Robert Mont- 
gomery Bird's Nick of the Woods (1837) a faint and fitful anticipation 
of Moby-Dick and perhaps the first work of fiction which at all effec- 
tively suggested the ominous features of the spatial condition. But in 
order to assess the contribution of Cooper (and hence, later, the splen- 
did alchemy of Hawthorne and Melville), it seems useful to begin with 
a much earlier, Gothic version of the representative hero Charles 
Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799). For in this novel, both the 
hero and his representative experience make their appearance while 
still entangled in Continental literary conventions. This was one of 
the novels named by Edward Tyrell Channing as of the genre which 
would never catch on in the New World. In fact, its story and its 
genre were the ones which American novelists would return to again 
and again. 


Arthur Mervyn is a guileless young man of eighteen who comes in 
1793 from his country farm into the city of Philadelphia, and there 
discovers the prolific reality of evil in every imaginable moral and 

1 92 3 

The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

physical form. When we first encounter him at the close of his second 
descent into the city, he is propped up against a wall and apparently 
dying of the plague; but even then there can be detected behind his 
"decayed visage" a "simple and ingenuous aspect" and "traces of un- 
common but manlike beauty." The burden of the novel's first volume 
is Arthur's somewhat incoherent report on the events which have so 
wasted, yet never destroyed, his manly simplicity. A few of the details, 
however gory or preposterous, are worth mentioning; for the very 
crudeness of Arthur Mervyn allows us to see all the more plainly the 
rhythm and the typical ingredients of the story in question. 

Arthur has left home after his father has remarried, taking to wife 
a buxom and illiterate servant girl. Arthur's only living relative is his 
father (he lets it slip later that the only other Mervyn child to attain 
maturity, a sister, had been seduced by a wandering schoolmaster and 
had instantly killed herself); now, alienated from his father, Arthur 
finds himself entirely alone in an unknown world. He makes his soli- 
tary way into the city, being properly gulled en route by a youth of 
sportive taste, who leaves him wedged in a closet in the bedroom of a 
strange house, just as the owner and his wife are arriving to go to bed 
for the night. Arthur manages to creep safely out (without his shoes); 
and, proceeding anxiously along the streets in the dawn, he approaches 
the first person he sees to beg of him enough money to get back to the 
country again. The person accosted, however a handsome elderly 
man, with a prosperous and cultivated air, calling himself Welbeck 
invites Arthur to his home; and there, evidently with some private 
scheme in mind, clothes and feeds him, instructing him to act as a 
secretary, say nothing about his origins, and show no astonishment at 
anything which may happen. 

Arthur gropes about in this dark and ominous world for several 
days, regularly shaken by inexplicable new disturbances. The mys- 
teries reach their climax in the midnight murder by Welbeck of a 
strange man who has entered the house in a fury and challenged him 
to a duel. Arthur stumbles onto a scene composed of a dead body and 
a desperate Welbeck and listens in stupefaction to an evil and intri- 
cate tale. That tale defies summary: sufficient that the dead man, a 
sea captain named Watson, has once befriended Welbeck, rescued him 
from an unsavory dilemma in Liverpool, and taken him to the Watson 
home in Charlestown ; and that, in Watson's subsequent absence, Wel- 
beck has seduced the married sister, who became pregnant and van- 
ished; upon this, the husband shot himself and the father went mad. 
Escaping south, Welbeck ran into new occasions for crime and profit 


The American Admn 

and was about to put his ideas to work (with Arthur's innocent assist- 
ance) when Watson turned up to accuse him and be killed. 

Welbeck hurries away, plunges into the Delaware River, and pre- 
sumably drowns, while Arthur recovers his scattered wits only 
enough to flee the city, taking cover in the country with a friendly 
family, the Hadwins. This new set of strangers provides much com- 
fort, but the Hadwins have their terrors too; and Susan, the elder 
daughter, has been reduced at a stroke to suicidal hysteria over fear 
for the life of her fiance, trapped in the newly plague-ridden Phila- 
delphia. Before long, Arthur braves a second entrance into the city, 
on a chivalric quest for Susan's betrothed. He does find him at last, 
after moving through a series of dreadful spectacles Philadelphia has 
become a city of the dead and the dying; and he recognizes in the ob- 
ject of his search the same young man (Wallace) who had tricked him 
on the first visit. This affair barely ended, Arthur meets up again with 
Welbeck, who has risen from seeming death by water to look for some 
banknotes secreted in the house. Welbeck declares the notes to be 
forgeries, and Arthur, who chances upon them, throws them into the 
fire, whereupon Welbeck disappears, out of his head with fury, and 
Arthur, exhausted and infected with the plague, totters through the 
city to fall senseless in the street. 

All this, mind you, is merely a contraction of the main plot of Vol- 
ume I; I have omitted the many minor characters and the multiplying 
subplots, and I can simply mention the second volume, wherein fur- 
ther pitfalls and triumphs are prepared for the recovered and, to some 
degree, matured hero. Brown was, of course, manipulating the only 
literary conventions he knew: the conventions of the emergent Gothic 
novel and of the sentimental romance; his seductions, betrayals, per- 
versions, his midnight rivers, and his shrouded, frenzied figures these 
were the commonplaces of what Mario Praz has called "the Romantic 
agony." 1 That agony was the agony of the chaste innocent appalled 
by unspeakable evil; but Brown exploited the conventions in a fable 
which managed to convey his personal sense of human experience and 
which since his sense coincided with many another response to life 
in the following decades we may in retrospect accept as distinctly 
native in outline. 

It is, to begin with, a matter of emphasis. Brown's favorite fictional 
subject, as he told a French correspondent, was "great energies em- 

1. In the title of his book, The Romantic Agony (London, 1933). The author's 
own Italian title was La Carnc, la morte e ildiavolo, but Professor Praz tells me that the 
English title is perfectly apt for his subject. 


The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

ployed in the promotion of vicious purposes"; "give me," he said, "a 
tale of lofty crimes rather than of honest folly." 2 In Wieland and Or- 
mond) consequently, he centered on the dreadful accomplishments of 
the villain-heroes after whom the novels were named, with the help- 
less virtue of Clara and Constantia serving to enlarge the frightful- 
ness. In Edgar Huntly, we are invited for much of the time to follow 
the lunatic peregrinations of the eventually self-destroying Clithero 
Edny. Even Arthur Mervyn on occasion mirrors his creator's ethical 
interests, when, for example, he confesses to the pleasure stimulated 
by the "terrific images" he conjures up of the plague. He realizes that 
there is no necessity for dwelling upon them, and he concludes that the 
images must contain "some nameless charm" that the horrible is 
akin to the sublime. That very realization, coming after Arthur's first 
involvement with the vicious energies of Welbeck, is a sign that Ar- 
thur is growing up. For Arthur Mervyn differs a little from Brown's 
other more Europeanized novels in the attention it gives not so much 
to lofty crimes as to the modifying effect of such wickedness upon an 
honest and foolish character. It is the American theme. 

Still, Brown remained to some extent of Welbeck's party, at least 
as a novelist. He tried to conceal his absorption with evil under a good 
deal of sententious moralizing, but the absorption was always evident. 
It had to be: since for Brown, who looked upon existence as a con- 
tinuous dull ache, creative writing was consciously therapeutic, and a 
part of the illness to be cured was an overactive awareness of the liv- 
ing reality of the world's Wei becks. The ache was physical: Brown 
had tuberculosis all his life and died of it, in 1809, at the age of thirty- 
eight. But it was psychological as well, the product of a profound self- 
distrust which expressed itself repeatedly to the dismay of his pedes- 
trian friends: "I am sometimes apt to think that few human beings 
have drunk so deeply of the cup of self-abhorrence as I have." 

It is not our business here to probe to the source of Brown's condi- 
tion; perhaps it partook of the same wilful expense of powers which 
seems to have touched off the steady self-dislike that Hawthorne was 
to record in his Salem notebook. Brown's fiction all the best of it, 
four long novels, crowded incredibly into the eleven months from 
September, 1798, to August, 1799 constituted a deliberate symbolic 

2. Most of the biographical information about Brown and the quotations from him 
may be found in Harry R. Warfel's valuable Charles Brockden Brown (Gainesville, 
Fla., 1949). Anyone interested in Brown, however, should start with the biography 
begun by Paul Allen and finished by William Dunlap, The Life of Charles Brockden 
Brown (2 vols.; Philadelphia, 1815). 


The American Adam 

action. It was writing alone, as Brown said explicitly during an aside 
in Arthur Mervyn, which "blunted my vexation, hushed my stormy 
passions, turned my peevishness to soothing, my fierce revenge to 
heart-dissolving pity." And so, in novel after novel, he annihilated in 
narrative those hard clusters of evil inclination he appeared so inti- 
mately to understand. 

But there was more to the story than that; there always is. Brown 
was an early American illustration of the alliance between art and ill- 
ness between art, moreover, and the knowledge, which may derive 
from the experience, of evil. But he illustrates at the same time the 
special intensity indeed, the sense of outrage with which the Amer- 
ican has characteristically acknowledged that alliance. Brown gives us 
the impression (as Melville does) of furious disillusion. He had been 
and very likely he remained a Utopian idealist. Paul Allen, in the bi- 
ography of Brown, spoke of "his favorite prospect of a perfect system 
of government." And in his first published writing sketches com- 
posed when he was eighteen and presented under the title of The 
Rhapsodist he enacted a self-appointed role as the perfect individual: 
relaxing, in the Ohio wilderness, into a perfecting sympathy with na- 
ture. The rhapsodic strain was muted, as Brown discovered in the life 
about him and, more painfully, in his own heart a refutation of the 
dream of primal purity muted, but not altogether silenced. The in- 
compatibility of the dream and the fact led where it might be expected 
to lead: the mature Brown, as his faithful friend Dr. Elihu Hubbard 
Smith told him worriedly, "affected to be mysterious and made am- 
biguity [his] delight." The curve of Brown's complex development is 
a kind of preview in actuality of the career of Melville's Pierre Glen- 
dinning, hero of a novel subtitled The Ambiguities: an account of the 
loss of Eden and the tragic inability to accept the loss. 

Brockden Brown attempted, like Pierre, to master his divided 
condition by dramatizing it, in his various pairs of devil-and-innocent. 
His artistic achievement can scarcely have been enough to assuage 
him, but some intermittent achievement there was, and of a revealing 
kind. The weaknesses are obvious: Arthur Mervyn betrays them at 
every turn. The plot, as any summary of it must show, is ludicrous 
and often unintelligible. Brown employed the method of narration 
which William Faulkner has managed with far greater skill: the meth- 
od of packing one story inside another, and a third inside that. In- 
deed, at one moment in Arthur Mervyn we are at not less than four 
removes from the immediate a device which expands the book's dark 
and violent cosmos, but which also confuses us intolerably. The style, 


The Hero in Space: Broivn, Cooper, Bird 

which varies not a jot from one autobiographical speech to another, 
seems usually to be imbedded in a kind of Latinate glue; Arthur's 
recollection of his first erotic response is as follows: "I had been a 
stranger to what is called love. From subsequent reflection I have con- 
tracted a suspicion that the sentiment with which I regarded this lady 
was not untinctured from this source." The world of the novel is 
singularly sparse and shadowy, as though Brown composed only when 
he was half-asleep. There is no surprise in Arthur's coming upon Wei- 
beck, after scrambling out of the closet; Welbeck was apparently the 
only living inhabitant of the city that day. As a matter of fact, by a 
telling paradox, the city of Philadelphia enjoys in the pages of the 
novel a far more dense and richly populated existence during the 
plague than in its better days. The hordes of suffering victims and the 
masses of corpses are (as Henry James might say) intensely there in a 
way that supposedly healthy citizens had never been. 

The clear superiority of the plague scenes is a mark of Brown's 
deepest preoccupation and the area of his genuine talent; for the 
world that he could quite artfully bring into being and explore with 
the greatest assurance was the land of the dead. This was something 
which also would become a Romantic commonplace, but in Brown's 
occasionally compelling prose we may recognize it as a land of spiritu- 
al crisis, a hell in which moral consciousness is either overwhelmed or 
transformed into the toughness of conscience. In the world of Arthur 
Mervyn, the average destiny is violence and horror crime, treachery, 
rape, suicide, murder; plague-ridden Philadelphia (like Faulkner's 
Jefferson) is a concentration of that world and an "objective correla- 
tive" to what Brown seems to have inwardly envisoned. 

Contemplating the novel in these terms, we can find in Arthur Mer- 
vyn that same universe of dissociated embodiments of malignity into 
which Horace Bushnell was to follow his own hypothetical Adam. For 
Philadelphia is an exclusive and impenetrable network of secret and 
corrupt liaisons but a network, at the same time, of mutually de- 
structive, hateful individuals, each craftily on his own. Brown gets 
this effect by what appear to be clumsy coincidences: the owner of the 
house Arthur is lured into by Wallace is, for example, none other than 
the business associate of the man he next encounters, Welbeck a 
schemer Welbeck would betray in a second, and vice versa. 

Moving blindly toward that world, that city, coming fresh from the 
country, getting partly inside and becoming nearly destroyed (alienat- 
ed from home, squeezed into a closet, caught in a criminal web, strick- 
en by the plague), is the foolish young innocent: the first of our Adams. 


The American Adam 

He is not, to be sure, entirely naturalized; in Arthur, we discover the 
young hopeful from the provinces of many a European country, anx- 
ious to make good in the capital city. The theme is universal, and it 
has been universally dramatized. Arthur resembles his American suc- 
cessors in so far as he is genuinely solitary. Indeed, he does seem to 
have no relations in time; he has no past and no inheritance to help 
or to hinder him; he brings with him nothing but a pure and empty 
heart and a mind like a tabula rasa. In the typical Gothic novel of 
Europe such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Ann Radcliffe 
the plight of the hero or heroine is a family affair: it is exactly the 
shock of evil emanating from one's close kin which energizes the tale. 
In Arthur Mervyn, as in most comparable fiction after it, it is the very 
unrelatedness of the hero to the centers of evil or to anything else 
which first stimulates the great unease. And as to Arthur's competence 
to deal with evil, "Less can be said," as Welbeck remarks in a nice 
understatement, about one of his own female conquests, "in praise of 
[his] understanding than of [his] sensibility." 

It is the end of the first phase of the initiation: that is, of the process 
of maturing, as formalized and made ethically meaningful. In the cha- 
otic second volume of the novel, Arthur demonstrates his maturity in 
the traditional way by putting his new knowledge to the service of 
others rescuing this person from a brothel, that one from a prison. 
Though Brockden Brown had few means, in the available vocabulary 
of his day, to identify his story the cheerful expectancies of his 
audience, as E. T. Channing would observe, working quite against 
him he nonetheless offered in Arthur Mervyn a muffled version of an 
adventure to be located by later fiction in the very heart of American 


Brown gives us a wavering glimpse of the new hero's features; but 
it was Cooper's contribution to bring the hero fully to life by taking 
him out of the cities and cellars and putting him where he belonged 
in space. The "scene" is the distinguishing element in Cooper's best 
compositions: whenever, that is, the scene is spacious enough, when- 
ever it is the forest or the sea. 8 "It is on the sea and in the forest," as 

3. Here and in my discussion of Hawthorne, I use the word "scene" in the manner 
suggested by Kenneth Burke, in The Grammar of Motives (New York, 1945). As used by 
Mr. Burke, the word means, first of all, not the simple geographical location of some 
thing, person, or act, but rather the qualitative and qualifying context. In the hands of 
the expert, the "scene" can thus contain the act or the character and can be substituted 
for either, or become a metaphor for either. Thus the blasted heath in Macbeth is not 

The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

Francis Parkman said, "that Cooper is most at home. Their spirit in- 
spired him, their images were graven on his heart"; and for Parkman 
this meant that Cooper was the first undeniably New World writer. 

Cooper was a sailor actually, during five of the earlier years of his 
life (1806-10) and in his typical enthusiasms and behavior during the 
rest of his life, whether writing another romance of the sea or drawing 
up a history of the American navy (1839) or in rancorously prosecut- 
ing one of his libel suits. But like two other sailors, Melville and Con- 
rad (both of whom admired him enormously), Cooper meditated the 
symbolic value of the sea and went on, like Melville in particular, to 
penetrate its affinity with the uncreated world beyond the frontier. 
For Cooper the forest and the sea shared the quality of boundlessness; 
they were the apeiron the area of possibility. 

But Cooper differed radically from either Conrad or Melville in his 
refusal to perceive any evil, overt or hidden, in the magnificent 
world of space, or in any of its creatures. His most memorable crea- 
tures come into moral being in the environmental influence of that 
world; they draw their breath in it; they reflect its firm and simple 
purity; they share its aloofness from time. Natty Bumppo is, of 
course, its representative par excellence, along with Chingachgook, the 
noble Mohican, especially in their youthful friendship as described in 
The Deerslayer; Canonchet, the Narraganset in The Wept of Wish-ton- 
Wish, belongs there too; and to some extent Harvey Birch, the lone- 
some and heroic peddler who doubles as The Spy; and perhaps even 
Long Tom Coffin in The Pilot Tom Coffin who has forgotten how to 
act in the land-world. 

The drama Cooper constructed for these actors on the spatial scene 
resulted from his trick of poising that scene upon the very brink of 
time. In the characteristic adventure of a Cooper novel (it is not to be 
confused with the "plot": see below), the personality of the Adamic 
hero is made to impinge upon the products of time: the villages lying 
a little inland, or on the safer side of the frontier; social institutions, 
with their precedents and established practices; relationships inherited 
through the years, thick with intimate histories; complexities, involve- 
ments, and corruptions. These appear concretely as the game laws, 
for example, in The Pioneers; as the secret, suspect, early career of 
Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer; as the mixed domestic, erotic, and 

merely a place where some witches happen to foregather: it is their rightful habitat, it 
is the kind of context which produces witches; it is a symbol of the same order as the 
witches, within the symbolic pattern of the play. 

1 99 1 

The American Adam 

military Anglo-American relations in The Spy. These are things the 
hero has to cope with in the course of his dramatic life, but which he 
must eventually stay clear of, if he is to remain faithful to the spatial 
vision. In The Bravo (1831), where the setting is the ancient city-state 
of Venice, the bravo himself is fixed inside the heart of corruption and 
maintains his own purity literally at the cost of his head; there was no 
place for him to escape to. But in those novels where the setting is the 
untracked American forest, the world always lies all before the hero, 
and normally, like Huck Finn, he is able to light out again for the 

The principle of survival in his essential character requires him 
constantly to "jump off" (this was the current phrase) to keep, as it 
were, two jumps ahead of time. This was the notion carried by the 
popular anecdote whereby Daniel Boone, Natty's historic cousin, was 
made to complain that "I had not been two years at the licks before 

a d d Yankee came and settled down within an hundred miles of 

me!" 4 It is in obedience to that principle that Deerslayer logically, 
though gracelessly, turns down Judith's proposal of marriage. The 
mission of poor Harvey Birch, in The Spy, at once forces him into 
dealing with the affairs of the Wharton family and prohibits him from 
forming bonds with them or with anyone else. And more typically 
still, in the first of the Leaf herstoc king Tales to be written, The Pio- 
neers (1823), Natty Bumppo like Billy Budd, in the tale composed 
sixty-eight years later but springing from almost identical tensions 
innocently runs afoul of the law by shooting a deer out of season and, 
after inspecting the situation, wisely takes off from the town and com- 
munity of Templeton for the freer country to the west. 

These instances and a dozen more like them, though by no means 
the usual focus of Cooper's tiresome, conventional plots, are the index 
to his real achievement. For in the universe of Cooper, as against that 
of Brockden Brown, space so-to-speak asserts itself against the on- 
slaught of time, with a vigor that is articulated in the new hero's im- 
pregnable virtue and indeed makes that hero's birth and survival 
possible. These instances are also the mark of Cooper's one great gift, 
possibly the one gift indispensable to the narrative artist who aspires 
to transmute American experience into story: the gift for seeing life 
dramatically as the measurement by conduct of institutions and the 
measurement by institutions of conduct. 

4. Quoted by Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), p. 54. 
Professor Smith's book, which I came across when the present study was largely com- 
pleted, is rich in suggestive information about the historic notions of the new Eden and 
the new Adam. 


The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

The whole vexatious problem of art and experience in the New 
World, in the age of hope and very probably ever since, is related to 
that difficult double process. Henry James, speaking as a writer of 
fiction and speaking about the stuff of fiction i.e., "experience" 
defined experience as "our apprehension and our measure of what 
happens to us as social creatures." It was an acute formulation of the 
traditional view; but, in America, experience in that social sense has 
not always been so easily come by. Experience cannot always be the 
stuff of fiction, but rather its climax the ultimate achievement or 
the ultimate disaster. The individual in America has usually taken 
his start outside society; and the action to be imitated may just as 
well be his strenuous efforts to stay outside as his tactics for getting 
inside; and if he does get inside, it makes a difference whether he is 
walking into a trap or discovering the setting in which to realize his 
own freedom. So the lesson for the writer anxious to be honest with the 
American scene has often been this: that what has to be measured and 
apprehended is painfully twofold the elements appraise each other. 
The success of James Fenimore Cooper in apprehending the lesson is 
the precise equivalent of his success as an artist. And his success was 
marginal precisely in the sense that the most illuminating clashes and 
insights occur on the margins of his plots. 

This is no doubt why it is always so hard to locate the source of 
Cooper's power: we look for it in the wrong places and, not finding it 
there, are inclined to deny its existence, wondering the while at the 
taste of our ancestors. Looked at squarely, Cooper's novels betray an 
astonishing lack of co-ordination between the classical ingredients of 
narrative: plot and character and thought and diction. Frequently 
these seem to have nothing to do with one another; they are not re- 
lated organically, or set deliberately at odds; they are, in a phrase of 
Eliot's, in the same book only by accident. The stylized romances 
which weigh down most of the pages in books like The Spy> The Pio- 
neers, and The Bravo have a very slight connection with the charac- 
ters who engage our attention on the peripheries. The incidents in 
The Last of the Mohicans are violent and incredible, and the style is 
unbearably sentimental. 

One is sometimes tempted to say that Cooper has no style at all 
unlike Charles Brockden Brown, who has a marked style, and a poor 
one. Cooper's attempts at style are all too often just that: attempts 
at style random linguistic inflations, verbal excitements, neither ex- 
pressing nor even adorning, but very nearly destroying the life that 
is yet at work in the fragments and corners. We are lucky, as Yvor 

The American Adam 

Winters has hinted, when the style is so monotonously bad that we 
can forget it. Where the events or the characters may independently 
engross us, "thought," speculative or dramatic, is usually absent; and 
the other way around. There is a good deal of political thought to be 
chewed on in The Manikins (1835); but it is a kind of punishment to 
try to follow its allegory and its deadly prose, while few, if any, ideas 
disturb the responses of the Whartons or the Munroes. If we look to 
Cooper's letters for revelation, we are smothered by the notes on some 
dinner party, the endless arithmetic of publishing, the analyses of the 
libel law by lifeless gossip and a humorless, constricted egotism. 
Yet, for all the surface awkwardness and the nonsense, not less than 
half a dozen of Cooper's novels possess an amount of indestructible 
power: something we answer to even before we have spotted it; some 
image of experience we know to be fundamentally our own, or at 
least could wish that it were. 

This was even truer in Cooper's more wishful generation; for what 
Cooper was doing for his readers was to grasp the expectancies of the 
day and project them in narrative. This does not mean that Cooper 
was a "realistic" reporter of his age, though he liked to think of him- 
self as a realist and chided Brockden Brown for a lack of verisimilitude 
for putting side by side, in the cave scene of Edgar Huntly, "an 
American, a savage, a wild cat and a tomahawk in a conjunction that 
never did nor ever will occur." But Cooper failed to see that Brown 
was not aiming at literal accuracy, but at the special effect of terror 
by incongruity: the terror implicit in the hero's solitary condition in 
an unknown world. Cooper was immune to the terror and rather rel- 
ished the position; but he in turn was charged with tampering with 
the actual facts and making them not too frightful but too comforting. 
Parkman, who loved and resembled him, thought his Indians too 
kindly; Poe regarded Cooper's fiction as "remarkably and especially 
inaccurate"; and Mark Twain traced in the inconsistencies of Natty 
Bumppo the profile of a vaudeville comic. But Cooper's fiction the 
Leather stocking Tales anyhow moved consciously away from a semi- 
historic authenticity (framing, in the early novels, those romantic 
posturings at mid-stage) toward a sort of sustained fantasy, in many 
respects much more authentic: a re-creation in story of the dream- 
legend of his contemporaries. The peak of that development was The 

There has been an interesting difference of critical opinion about 
The Deers/ayer. Yvor Winters is not alone in judging it inferior to 
many other novels "in plot and in movement," and in thinking that 

f 102} 

The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

it has "few . . . serious merits." My own high relative estimate coin- 
cides with the one expressed by D. H. Lawrence "the most facinat- 
ing Leatherstocking book is the last, The Deerslayer" because I 
agree with Lawrence in seeing the novel as the culmination of a proc- 
ess which exemplifies the American myth. Lawrence's words seem 
to me at once exact, poetic, and inimitable: "The Leatherstocking 
novels ... go backwards from old age to golden youth. That is the 
true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in 
an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing off of the old skin, to- 
wards a new youth. It is the myth of America." 

It is. Cultural and individual self-renewal was the aim of the day's 
most magnetic metaphors; it was the principle of Thoreau's celebra- 
tion of the molting season and Whitman's giant leap to the beginning 
of time varieties of the great surge of motion from memory to hope. 
Cooper completed that motion a number of years before either Walden 
or Leaves of Grass the journey from Natty Bumppo's old age and 
death in The Pioneers and The Prairie to his birth and golden youth 
in The Deerslayer and he completed it in terms of the character of 
his hero and the experience which shaped it when both were settled 
in the scene that became them. 

Cooper felt the myth at a greater depth than did most of his trend- 
following colleagues (who served up innumerable tales of retreats to 
the wilderness Eden); and he bodied it forth with all the ardor of a 
declining conviction. His hero and his hero's friend, in The Deer slay er^ 
are all the more timeless and sturdily innocent, their world all the 
more fresh, free, and uncluttered, as Cooper's own hope for his his- 
toric world grew fainter. He was beginning to realize, as a posthumous 
fragment expressed it, that "there is no such thing on earth" as the 
perfect community his fellows still schemed about; and that anyone 
who understood the cruelty and stupidity inherent in a democratic 
society like America's who had perhaps been wounded by that so- 
ciety would have to "look beyond the limits of his earthly being 
for consolation and support." For a novelist, one promising area to 
look to might be the invulnerable world of myth, as an enduring 
model for the actual. 

The plot of The Deerslayer recounts a series of skirmishes between 
a group of white trappers and frontiersmen on Lake Otsego and a 
local band of marauding Iroquois. The whites include old Thomas 
Hutter and his two "daughters," Judith and Hetty, and the huge, 
amoral Harry March Hurry Harry. Moving in and out of their 
circle, with them but never of them, helping them, instructing them, 

I 103 1 

The American Adam 

saving them, and always keeping at some ethical and psychic distance 
from them are young Natty Bumppo and his Indian ally Chingach- 
gook. The plot is little more than a medley of captures and rescues, 
scalpings and shootings, tactics and countertactics; except for the 
final episode, when Judith Hutter, a raven-haired charmer of doubtful 
background, tries to talk Natty round to marrying her, in language 
he modestly fails to grasp. But the "action" of the story as distinct 
from the plot what is really going on in the novel is something far 
more significant: it is the birth of an archetypal, still finely individu- 
alized character, which Lawrence identifies as "the essential American 
soul ... an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man." Natty 
Bumppo is the full-fledged fictional Adam. He is born with all due 
ceremony during an incident that has every self-conscious quality of 
a ritual trial. The incident, which is one of the greatest moments in 
all Cooper's fiction, is in the seventh chapter, when Deerslayer kills 
his first Indian. It is dawn on a spring morning, as Deerslayer 
"entirely alone" glides in his canoe to the lake's bank, is shot at by 
an Iroquois hidden among the trees, hastily takes cover, and enters a 
duel of skill which is carried on like a deadly dance. The adversaries, 
peering around from behind trees, bow courteously to each other; they 
exchange words and proposals; each gesture and act of preparation 
has an air of solemn formality. They fire simultaneously it is like a 
kiss and, while "Deerslayer dropped his piece and stood, with head 
erect, steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning, watch- 
ing the result," the Iroquois plunges forward into the opening, hurls 
his tomahawk with a fearful howl, and falls dying to the ground. The 
trial successfully passed the trial of honor, courage, and self-reliance 
Deerslayer earns his symbolic reward of a new name. 

"What we call him ?" [asks the dying Iroquois]. 

"Deerslayer is the name I bear now. ..." 

"That good name for boy poor name for warrior. He get better quick. No 
fear there" the savage had strength sufficient, under the strong excitement 
he felt, to raise a hand and tap the young man on his breast "eye sartain 
finger lightning aim, death great warrior soon. No Deerslayer Hawk- 
eye Hawk-eye Hawk-eye. Shake hand." 

The new hero rejoices in his new name and status: "Hawkeye! That's 
not a bad name for a warrior, sounding much more manful and valiant 
than Deersla/er." Like his closest equivalent in recent fiction, Isaac 
McCaslin, on the occasion of his first ritualistic encounter with Old 
Ben in William Faulkner's The Bear, Hawkeye could reflect (he vir- 
tually does) that "he was witnessing his own birth" or rebirth as the 

1 104 I 

The Hero in Space: Broivn, Cooper, Bird 

American Adam: accomplished appropriately in the forest on the edge 
of a lake, with no parents near at hand, no sponsors at the baptism; 
springing from nowhere, as Tocqueville had said, standing alone in the 
presence of God and Nature. 

The rest of the novel completes the process, as Hawkeye becomes 
secure in his characteristic virtues: largely by opposition to the habits 
of the others around him. Less important than the melodrama of the 
capture and rescue of Hurry Harry and Tom Hutter is Hawkeye's 
growing awareness that, while they fight and collect scalps for profit, 
his own "gifts" require him to come to terms with his forest home, to 
kill solely in order to live there. And beneath the comedy of poor 
Hetty's visit to the Iroquois camp and her attempt to preach the cap- 
tors into releasing their prisoners is a profoundly suggestive distinction 
between the quality of Hetty's innocence and that of Hawkeye's; 
Hetty has an innocence which is, in fact, a self-delusive helplessness, 
a half-witted conviction of universal goodness, which exposes her to 
every physical and moral danger and finally kills her. It is partly by 
contemplation of that hapless girl, by conversations with Hetty and 
about her, that Hawkeye arrives at a more durable kind of innocence 
and at the insight that it must be bounded by an observation of ethi- 
cal differences. Cooper skilfully exposes the solid core of Hawkeye's 
Adamism by setting it alongside the flimsy hopefulness of Hetty 

Cooper was wise to tell no further tales of Hawkeye, to leave him 
alone at the close of The Deerslayer, in his spatial world unencumbered 
by wife and family, and to conclude the entire Leatherstocking series 
with the hero's birth and young manhood. For according to the vision 
Cooper shared, the end was paradoxically a fresh beginning, and no 
transforming experience was envisaged or desired beyond it. Only an 
imagination of a quite different order would seek to carry the story 
further: an imagination which perceived the possible dependence of 
moral growth on evil and which could draw from that tragic irony a 
more widely ranging narrative. Hawthorne and Melville had such an 
imagination; but as a rehearsal for their imaginings and as a minor, 
yet notable, moment in the history of Adam as fictional hero, we may 
glance briefly at Nick of the Woods by Robert Montgomery Bird. 


Robert Montgomery Bird of Philadelphia (1806-54) was a physi- 
cian of restless temperament with a flair for storytelling, a man of 
minor talent and blunted perceptions, who yet, in Nick of the Woods 

I 105 I 

The American Adam 

(1837), came closer than he knew to breaking through the conventions 
of fiction and producing a novel of honesty and stature. In his Preface 
to Nick of the Woods ) which was written during the second wave of in- 
terest in literature about the Revolution and the Indian wars, Bird 
claimed that his treatment of the Indian character was more realistic 
than Cooper's. But he claimed too little; he is another instance of the 
American novelist insufficiently aware of what most vitally engages 

There was some truth in Bird's critique of Cooper for throwing a 
"poetical illusion over the Indian character" and in the contention 
that he himself had portrayed them "as ... they existed . . . igno- 
rant, violent, debased, brutal/' The major adversary of Nick of the 
Woodsy Wenonga, the Black Vulture, chief of the terrifying Shawnees 
of Kentucky, is first discovered lying hopelessly drunk in the bushes 
outside his encampment; and in an effective twist to the customary 
attribution of great courtesy, the first Indians encountered step 
through the door of the white men's cabin with the ironic greeting, 
"Bozhoo [bon jour] brudders Injun good friend" and advance for 
the kill with a hoot of "malign laughter." But his view of Indian mo- 
rality, while derived from a rational conviction about the eternal 
superiority of civilization to barbarism, was also symptomatic of some 
deeper response to experience: a moral realism not clearly enough rec- 
ognized by Bird to command his narrative at all points or to sustain 
its initial drive, but something yet powerful enough frequently to 
color it. 

It affected, for example, those conventional elements and persons 
Bird was unable to keep out of his story. Romance and social intrigue, 
borrowed from English popular fiction, occupy, as usual, too many 
pages; but an attitude of fresh skepticism about the mores of such ro- 
mance continues to creep in: into the tone describing the dead faint in 
which the heroine passes most of the adventure; into the ridicule the 
title-figure pours upon the juvenile hero's stagy lament over the girl's 
worse-than-death situation. "Would that twenty bullets had pierced 
her," cries Roland Forrester, "rather than she should have fallen alive 
into the hands of Braxley" (the white deceiver, now conniving with 
the Shawnees) and Nathan: "Is thee wretched because thee eyes did 
not see the Injun axe struck into her brain? Friend, thee does not 
know what such a sight is." The notion of ethical reality lying half- 
suppressed beneath such moments was what gave life to Bird's one 
really distinguished characterization, the highly ambiguous Nathan 


The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

Nathan is the innocent man of love transformed by a collision with 
evil. He had once been, quite genuinely, a pacifistic Quaker, living a 
quiet, pastoral life along the frontier, behaving according to the tenets 
of universal friendliness; so he is still regarded by the frontiersmen, 
who mock at him as a futile old man; so, in some contradictory way, 
he still partly remains. But the core of his character has undergone a 
radical change the result of an unutterable shock. After Nathan had 
opened his arms to a visiting band of Shawnees and even handed his 
rifle over to them as a gesture of trust, the Indians had promptly mur- 
dered his wife and his five children before his eyes and inflicted a ter- 
rific wound on his own scalp. Nathan, dragging himself back to life, is 
turned into the frontier's most ferocious Indian-hater and -killer, the 
scourge of the Shawnees called by his enemies, with unconscious 
propriety, the Jibbenainosay, the "Dead Man Who Walks/' 6 For so 
he is, hiding the scar of an almost deadly wound beneath a broadly 
flapping hat made of tanned skins, hiding his mission of revenge be- 
neath the conduct of the suffering servant. The diabolic conversion of 
his energies is symbolized in the sign of the cross he carves into the 
corpses he has already brutally mangled; this is why the whites refer 
to the unknown killer as Nick (Old Nick) of the Woods. The shock 
which motivates Nathan's secret warfare reverberates and ripples 
through the novel and conies close to lifting it out of its mediocre 

It is tempting to guess that that shock is the correlative of some 
psychic shock experienced by the author, the wound the correlative 
of some trauma; but nothing in the author's life, so far as we know 
about it, permits us to say so. Bird lived in Philadelphia and Dela- 
ware, practiced medicine for a couple of years, wrote a series of mod- 
erately successful plays, and three other novels (hardly worth remem- 
bering) before Nick of the Woods in 1837. In his later years he became 
depressed by ill health and a belief that he was unappreciated; but at 
the time of writing Nick, his fortunes and spirits were generally on the 

5. Francis Parkman took note both of the theme and of Bird's use of it, in an aside 
in The Conspiracy of Pontiac (The Works of Francis Parkman [Boston, 1902], XVII, 
127). "It is not easy for those living in the tranquillity of polish-life," wrote Parkman, 
with his customary very faint curl of the lips, "to conceive the depth and force of that 
unquenchable, indiscriminate hate which Indian outrages can awaken in those who have 
suffered them. The chronicles of the American borders are filled with the deeds of men, 
who, having lost all by the merciless tomahawk, have lived for vengeance alone." Then, 
in a footnote, he adds, "So promising a theme has not escaped the notice of novelists, 
and it has been adopted by Dr. Bird in his spirited Nick of the Woods" One of Park- 
man's special gifts was for spotting the dramatic theme in given historical incidents and 
conditions (see chap. 8). 

1 107 1 

The American Adam 

rise; and the absence of any pain for him in the creative process is in- 
dicated by his reflection: "How blessedly and lazily, making a novel, 
a man may go spinning and snoozing over his quires." The source of 
the book's partial achievement must be left unaccounted for, except 
for an unexplorable hunch about unrecorded disturbances. 

Bird's notion about the writing of fiction is unhappily mirrored in 
the major portion of the book's narrative, and in the shape the story 
finally assumes a slackening from potential tragedy to melodrama. 
The incidents of the book take place in the Salt River Valley of Ken- 
tucky during the last years of the Revolution; they include the jour- 
ney of Roland Forrester and his cousin Edith through the forest, the 
attacks upon them by the Shawnees, their various imprisonments and 
rescues, and the conspiracy to defraud them by the villainous Braxley. 
The incidents are not unexciting the book is a good yarn and is easy 
to read; but, as in a Cooper novel, we have to disentangle from the 
surface plot the more important action unfolding itself almost in spite 
of the plot: in this case, the revelation of a complex character which 
is at once the manifestation of a complex moral sensibility. Nathan 
Slaughter belongs to the cluster of heroes in space; but he has turned 
sour; he throws his environment into relief by being at odds with it. 

On the first page of the novel there are quoted the final lines of 
Paradise Lost: Adam and Eve, the world lying all before them, taking 
through Eden their solitary way: those lines so apt to the contempo- 
rary dream and so often invoked in it, those lines so central to the 
later ironic purposes of Henry James. On the same page we are intro- 
duced to the Kentucky frontier in terms of the current Eden imagery: 
"It was not unnatural, indeed, that men should regard as an Eden the 
land in which the gallant Daniel Boone, while taking his 'pleased 
rambles' on the 22d of December, 1769, discovered 'myriads of trees, 
some gay with blossoms, others rich with fruits.' " The proper inhabit- 
ant of such a frontier Eden is, of course, the unmodified American 
Adam: innocent, vigorous, bright with hope, trustingly intimate with 
his surroundings. Bird's accomplishment was to place upon that scene 
a figure who formerly had possessed many of the Adamic qualities; 
who possesses some of them still, and continues to believe they are the 
supreme qualities in a better world; but for whom the scene has be- 
come intolerably darkened. 

Nathan's public behavior, during the early chapters of the novel, is 
in some sort a mimicry of Adamism: with the innocence not of Hawk- 
eye but of Hetty Hutter that innocence which hopes to turn away 
wickedness by the expression of lofty sentiments. But within him, 


The Hero in Space: Brown, Cooper, Bird 

Nathan has become the outraged Adam, hurled out of Eden by a vis- 
itation of the devil, venting his outrage in a ferocity of revenge with 
the extravagant emotion that only the original native illusion could 
engender. Nathan indeed almost rises, for an instant or two, to the 
great fictional stature that the matched forces made possible: the 
stature of the inverted Christ the stature reached in one motion by 
Melville's Ahab. For, like Ahab, Nathan is a member of the gentle 
Quaker sect who has been wounded beyond all physical and psycho- 
logical endurance, who has been scorched by experience, and who re- 
turns from death to a private mission of revenge a revenge similarly 
conceived as the salvation of that little world which simultaneously 
rejects him. 

Of course, any comparison of Nick of the Woods and Moby-Dick, of 
Nathan's quest for the Black Vulture and Ahab's for the White 
Whale, must be an exercise in literary judgment and must conclude 
by observing that the paradoxes of Nathan's character are gradually 
drained of tension as the story proceeds, until toward the end they 
verge on mere comic incongruity. Wenonga is killed by Nathan, the 
young persons are saved and duly married, every person who deserves 
it lives happily thereafter. The strength of imagination with which 
Bird took hold of his story at the outset could not be sustained; but 
in the figure of Nathan Slaughter, he began to suggest what might 
happen when the hero became alienated from space, when the condi- 
tions which rendered him solitary succeeded at the same time in driv- 
ing him mad. 

1 109 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

Adam saw it in a brighter sunshine, but never knew the 
shade of pensive beauty which Eden won from his ex- 

HAWTHORNE, The Marble Faun 

THE shift from a Natty Bumppo to a Nathan Slaughter was a 
process of aging and embittering; it reflected a shift in setting, as 
the actual frontier scene pushed beyond the forests to the plains and 
the western mountains. In fact and in the garish and transient frontier 
fiction which the facts encouraged, the new representative adventurer 
the plainsman and the mountaineer now found himself surrounded 
by a more ominous and drearier kind of space. The character of the 
hero changed in response to the new environment. Professor Henry 
Nash Smith, in his excellent study of "the American west as symbol 
and myth" (Virgin Land [1950]), has remarked that, as "the scene has 
been shifted from the deep fertile forests ... to the barren plains," the 
figure in frontier literature becomes one who "no longer look[ed] to 
God through nature, for nature [was] no longer benign; its symbols 
[were] the wolves and the prairie fire." Kit Carson replaced Daniel 
Boone, Hawkeye's prototype. Contemplating the condition of Car- 
son, Professor Smith concludes that "the landscape . . . throws the 
hero back in upon himself and accentuates his terrible and sublime 
isolation. He is an anarchic and self-contained atom hardly even a 
monad alone in a hostile, or at best a neutral, universe." 

A comparable change in the constituent elements of dramatic lit- 
erature in the character of the hero and the quality of his "uni- 
verse" was taking place simultaneously in the developing fiction of 
the East. Other personal and cultural factors were at work in this fic- 
tion; yet American fiction has regularly registered through its own 
peculiar symbols the changing contours of the continent and its his- 
tory. In Hawthorne and after him in Melville, we come upon dramatic 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

structures which probe more deeply the changes foreshadowed by 
Bird in the Adamic fable of Cooper. 

The isolated hero "alone in a hostile, or at best a neutral, universe" 
begins to replace the Adamic personality in the New World Eden. The 
essential continuity of American fiction explains itself through this 
historic transformation whereby the Adamic fable yielded to what I 
take to be the authentic American narrative. For much of that fable 
remained in the later narrative: the individual going forth toward 
experience, the inventor of his own character and creator of his per- 
sonal history; the self-moving individual who is made to confront that 
"other" the world or society, the element which provides experience. 
But as we move from Cooper to Hawthorne, the situation very nota- 
bly darkens; qualities of evil and fear and destructiveness have en- 
tered; self-sufficiency is questioned through terrible trials; and the 
stage is set for tragedy. The solitary hero and the alien tribe; "the 
simple genuine self against the whole world" this is still the given, 
for the American novelist. The variable is this: the novelist's sense of 
the initial tension whether it is comforting, or whether it is poten- 
tially tragic; whether the tribe promises love, or whether it promises 

Hawthorne was perhaps the first American writer to detect the in- 
evitable doubleness in the tribal promise. For he was able by tempera- 
ment to give full and fair play to both parties in the agon: to the hero 
and to the tribe as well. And, having done so, he penetrated to the 
pattern of action a pattern of escape and return, at once tragic and 
hopeful which was likely to flow from the situation as given. In ad- 
dition, Hawthorne felt very deeply the intimacy between experience 
and art, and he enacted a change as well in the resources and methods 
of the narrative art: something which mirrored, even while it articu- 
lated, his heroes' and heroines' adventures. Finally, it was Hawthorne 
who saw in American experience the re-creation of the story of Adam 
and who, more than any other contemporary, exploited the active 
metaphor of the American as Adam before and during and after the 
Fall. These are the three aspects of Hawthorne that I shall consider. 


The opening scene of The Scarlet Letter is the paradigm dramatic 
image in American literature. With that scene and that novel, New 
World fiction arrived at its first fulfilment, and Hawthorne at his. 
And with that scene, all that was dark and treacherous in the Ameri- 
can situation became exposed. Hawthorne said later that the writing 

The American Adam 

of The Scarlet Letter had been oddly simple, since all he had to do was 
to get his "pitch" and then to let it carry him along. He found his 
pitch in an opening tableau fairly humming with tension with coiled 
and covert relationships that contained a force perfectly calculated to 
propel the action thereafter in a direct line to its tragic climax. 

It was the tableau of the solitary figure set over against the inimical 
society, in a village which hovers on the edge of the inviting and 
perilous wilderness; a handsome young woman standing on a raised 
platform, confronting in silence and pride a hostile crowd whose 
menace is deepened by its order and dignity; a young woman who has 
come alone to the New World, where circumstances have divided her 
from the community now gathered to oppose her; standing alone, but 
vitally aware of the private enemy and the private lover one on the 
far verges of the crowd, one at the place of honor within it, and neither 
conscious of the other who must affect her destiny and who will 
assist at each other's destruction. Here the situation inherent in the 
American scene was seized entire and without damage to it by an imag- 
ination both moral and visual of the highest quality: seized and locat- 
ed, not any longer on the margins of the plot, but at its very center. 

The conflict is central because it is total; because Hawthorne makes 
us respect each element in it. Hawthorne felt, as Brown and Cooper 
and Bird had felt, that the stuff of narrative (in so far as it was drawn 
from local experience) consisted in the imaginable brushes between 
the deracinated and solitary individual and the society or world await- 
ing him. But Hawthorne had learned the lesson only fitfully appre- 
hended by Cooper. In The Scarlet Letter not only do the individual and 
the world, the conduct and the institutions, measure each other: the 
measurement and its consequences are precisely and centrally what 
the novel is about. Hester Prynne has been wounded by an unfriendly 
world; but the society facing her is invested by Hawthorne with as- 
surance and authority, its opposition is defensible and even valid. 
Hester's misdeed appears as a disturbance of the moral structure of 
the universe; and the society continues to insist in its joyless way that 
certain acts deserve the honor of punishment. But if Hester has sinned, 
she has done so as an affirmation of life, and her sin is the source of 
life; she incarnates those rights of personality that society is inclined 
to trample upon. The action of the novel springs from the enormous 
but improbable suggestion that the society's estimate of the moral 
structure of the universe may be tested and found inaccurate. 

The Scarlet Letter, like all very great fiction, is the product of a con- 
trolled division of sympathies; and we must avoid the temptation to 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

read it heretically. It has always been possible to remark, about Haw- 
thorne, his fondness for the dusky places, his images of the slow move- 
ment of sad, shut-in souls in the half-light. But it has also been pos- 
sible to read The Scarlet Letter (not to mention "The New Adam and 
Eve" and "Earth's Holocaust") as an indorsement of hopefulness: to 
read it as a hopeful critic named Loring read it (writing for Theodore 
Parker's forward-looking Massachusetts Quarterly Review) as a party 
plea for self-reliance and an attack upon the sterile conventions of in- 
stitutionalized society. One version of him would align Hawthorne 
with the secular residue of Jonathan Edwards; the other would bring 
him closer to Emerson. But Hawthorne was neither Emersonian nor 
Edwardsean; or rather he was both. The characteristic situation in his 
fiction is that of the Emersonian figure, the man of hope, who by some 
frightful mischance has stumbled into the time-burdened world of 
Jonathan Edwards. And this grim picture is given us by a writer who 
was skeptically cordial toward Emerson, but for whom the vision of 
Edwards, filtered through a haze of hope, remained a wonderfully 
useful metaphor. 1 The situation, in the form which Hawthorne's 
ambivalence gave it, regularly led in his fiction to a moment of crucial 
choice: an invitation to the lost Emersonian, the thunder-struck 
Adam, to make up his mind whether to accept the world he had fall- 
en into, or whether to flee it, taking his chances in the allegedly free 
wilderness to the west. It is a decision about ethical reality, and most 
of Hawthorne's heroes and heroines eventually have to confront it. 

That is why we have the frantic shuttling, in novel after novel, be- 
tween the village and the forest, the city and the country; for these are 
the symbols between which the choice must be made and the means 
by which moral inference is converted into dramatic action. Unlike 
Thoreau or Cooper, Hawthorne never suggested that the choice was an 
easy one. Even Arthur Mervyn had been made to reflect on "the con- 
trariety that exists between the city and the country"; in the age of 
hope the contrariety was taken more or less simply to lie between the 
restraints of custom and the fresh expansiveness of freedom. Haw- 
thorne perceived greater complexities. He acknowledged the depend- 
ence of the individual, for nourishment, upon organized society (the 
city), and he believed that it was imperative "to open an intercourse 
with the world." But he knew that the city could destroy as well as 

1. Cf. the fine observation and the accompanying discussion of Mark Van Doren, in 
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1949), p. 162: "Hawthorne did not need to believe in Puritanism 
in order to write a great novel about it. He had only to understand it, which for a man 
of his time was harder." 

I "3 1 

The American Adam 

nourish and was apt to destroy the person most in need of nourish- 
ment. And while he was responsive to the attractions of the open air 
and to the appeal of the forest, he also understood the grounds for the 
Puritan distrust of the forest. He retained that distrust as a part of 
the symbol. In the forest, possibility was unbounded; but just because 
of that, evil inclination was unchecked, and witches could flourish 

For Hawthorne, the forest was neither the proper home of the ad- 
mirable Adam, as with Cooper; nor was it the hideout of the malevo- 
lent adversary, as with Bird. It was the ambiguous setting of moral 
choice, the scene of reversal and discovery in his characteristic tragic 
drama. The forest was the pivot in Hawthorne's grand recurring pat- 
tern of escape and return. 

It is in the forest, for example, that The Scarlet Letter version of the 
pattern begins to disclose itself: in the forest meeting between Hester 
and Dimmesdale, their first private meeting in seven years. During 
those years, Hester has been living "on the outskirts of the town," 
attempting to cling to the community by performing small services 
for it, though there had been nothing "in all her intercourse with 
society . . . that made her feel as if she belonged to it." And the min- 
ister has been contemplating the death of his innocence in a house 
fronting the village graveyard. The two meet now to join in an exer- 
tion of the will and the passion for freedom. They very nearly persuade 
themselves that they can escape along the forest track, which, though 
in one direction it goes "backward to the settlement," in another goes 
onward "deeper it goes, and deeper into the wilderness, until . . . the 
yellow leaves will show no vestiges of the white man's tread." But the 
energy aroused by their encounter drives them back instead, at the 
end, to the heart of the society, to the penitential platform which is 
also the heart of the book's structure. 

In no other novel is the agon so sharp, the agony so intense. But the 
pattern is there again in The Marble Faun, as Miriam and Donatello 
flee separately from the city to the wooded Apennines to waste their 
illicit exultation in the discovery that they must return to Rome and 
the responsibility for their crime. It is true that Zenobia, in The 
Blithedale Romance, never does return from her flight: because her 
escape consummates itself in suicide, and she drowns in the river run- 
ring through the woods near the Utopian colony. Zenobia, who is 
often associated in the narrator's fancy with the figure of Eve, is too 
much of an Eve to survive her private calamity. The more usual out- 
come more usual, that is, with Hawthorne is realized in a sort of 


The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

tremulous parody by the abortive train ride of Hepzibah and Clifford 
Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables "the flight of the two 
owls," who get only a station or so along the line into the country be- 
fore limping back to town to confess to a crime which has not after 
all been committed. 

It is poor Clifford who most blatantly gives voice to the contempo- 
rary aspirations imitated in these journeys, as he babbles on in an echo 
of the hopeful language he must have heard from Holgrave, the 
daguerreotypist. Homelessness, he explains to an embarrassed fellow- 
passenger, is the best of conditions; "the soul needs air: a wide sweep 
and a frequent change of it." He sees "the world and my best days 
before me" and is sure the flight has restored him to "the very heyday 
of my youth." These exclamations comprise the first principles of 
Adamism; Clifford trembles in the untenable belief that he has ful- 
filled the action attributed (by Lawrence) to Cooper's Hawkeye the 
motion "backwards from old age to golden youth." The ironic con- 
text for his babbling and the total collapse that it rapidly leads to re- 
veal that here, for the first time in American fiction, the story of Adam 
has become an element of the story actually being narrated and so 
begins to suffer serious modification. Clifford, too, wants to make that 
leap from memory to hope; his Adamic ambition is an ingredient in 
the novel; but his leap is Icarian. 

Many things are being tested as well as exemplified in these circular 
journeys, in the pattern of escape and return. Among them, the doc- 
trine inherited from Edwards that "an evil taint, in consequence of a 
crime committed twenty or forty years ago, remain[s] still, and even 
to the end of the world and forever." Among them, too, the proposi- 
tion, implicit in much American writing from Poe and Cooper to An- 
derson and Hemingway, that the valid rite of initiation for the indi- 
vidual in the new world is not an initiation into society, but, given the 
character of society, an initiation away from it: something I wish it 
were legitimate to call "initiation." The true nature of human wick- 
edness is also in question. Hawthorne's heroes and heroines are almost 
always criminals, according to the positive laws of the land, but Haw- 
thorne presumed all men and women to be somehow criminals, and 
himself not the least so. The elder James reported to Emerson how 
Hawthorne had looked to him at a Saturday Club meeting in Boston: 
"like a rogue who finds himself in the company of detectives"; we can 
imagine him there: furtive, uneasy, out of place, half-guilty and half- 
defiant, poised for instant flight. No doubt it was because he appraised 

The American Adam 

his personal condition this way that Hawthorne so frequently put his 
characters in the same dilemma: James's comment is a droll version 
of the opening glimpse of Hester Prynne. And no doubt also this was 
why Hawthorne so obviously sympathized with what he nevertheless 
regarded as an impossible enterprise the effort to escape. 

But if he customarily brought his sufferers back into the communi- 
ty; if he submitted most of his rogues to ultimate arrest; if the "evil 
taint" does turn out to be ineradicable, it was not because Hawthorne 
yielded in the end to the gloomy doctrine of Edwards. It was much 
rather because, for all his ambivalence, Hawthorne had made a dar- 
ing guess about the entire rhythm of experience and so was willing to 
risk the whole of it. His qualifications as a novelist were at stake; for 
if the guess had been less comprehensive, he would have been a novel- 
ist of a very different kind: an inferior Melville, perhaps, exhausting 
himself in an excess of response to every tragic, new, unguessed-at col- 
lision. But if the guess had been any more certain, he might scarcely 
have been a novelist at all, but some sort of imperturbable tractarian. 
As it was, he could share some part of the hope motivating the flight; 
he could always see beyond the hope to the inevitable return; and he 
could even see a little distance beyond the outcome of surrender to 
the light and strength it perhaps assured. 

Beneath the sunshine that illuminates the soul's surface, he once 
wrote, there is a region of horror that seems, to the inward traveler, 
"like hell itself," and through which the self wanders without hope; 
but deeper still there is a place of perfect beauty. He was not often so 
certain, but that was the substance of his guess about experience. And 
this is why there is always more to the world in which Hawthorne's 
characters move than any one of them can see at a glance. There is 
more than the surface sunshine covering the whole horizon of the 
hopeful of his day or his fiction his "new Adam and Eve," the com- 
fortable customers of his "Celestial Railroad," in their untested faith 
in human purity and in a new world all the braver because it had 
stamped out the past. But there is more too, much more, than the 
darkness, the monsters, and the divers shapes which tormented the 
souls of the lost and the guilty Mr. Hooper behind his black veil, 
Reuben Bourne of "Roger Melvin's Burial," young Goodman Brown. 
There was still some fulfilment of the spirit, some realization of the 
entire self which it was worth losing one's self to find; only the lost, 
indeed, were likely to find it on their return journey, though a soul 
might shrivel, like young Brown's, in the process. 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

The nature and prerequisites of the achievement Hawthorne en- 
visaged are best illustrated by The Marble Faun though that novel 
sometimes gains its clarity at the expense of its poetry. The achieve- 
ment in question was, of course, a kind of salvation: Hawthorne's 
kind. And his kind seemed to depend upon an individual perception 
which was in great part artistic. The Marble Faun is a novel explicitly 
about the hero as Adam; but it is no less a novel about the heroine as 
artist. In it, Hawthorne's sense of the analogy between human crea- 
tivity and human conduct so evident elsewhere in his fiction re- 
ceives its most thorough and complex expression. The artistic dimen- 
sion of The Marble Faun is neither secondary nor peripheral; it is pre- 
cisely the dimension in which the story's chief "epiphany" is clinched. 

There is, for example, a moment in the novel when the pattern of 
escape and return is conducted entirely in terms of artistic creation. 
Miriam, the dark-haired heroine of the book and the spokesman for 
both ethical and creative freedom from the past, discovers that her 
self-portrait is a very recognizable, though unconscious, copy of a 
stylized portrait of the sixteenth century. The shock of that recogni- 
tion sets off a chain reaction. Miriam's acknowledgment of the re- 
semblance between her own portrait and that of a long-dead lady 
helps her later to perceive the resemblance between the action she has 
shared with Donatello and the adventure of a long-dead pair of 
Adam and Eve, in fact. It is a saving shock, for salvation by recog- 
nition is the heart of the book's epiphany. It is the kind of percep- 
tion, Hawthorne suggests, which restores the self to its right relation 
with the world; it is the great means of control both in art and in 

Here, as in a number of his other writings, Hawthorne presents 
a judgment about Adam as artist (the hopeful ideal) which spilled 
over into a judgment of Adam as moral agent. He always had a good 
deal to say about the problems of the artist in America; and as to the 
available materials for literature, he shared the misgivings of Chan- 
ning and Cooper about their meagerness. In the little notes with which 
he took to introducing his novels as though bracing himself in ad- 
vance for a poor reception Hawthorne contended that human rela- 
tions cast too slight a shadow in America for the artist's purpose; that 
there was too little texture in American life; and that, besides, the 
temper of his countrymen contained too little tragic expectancy. 
Those were his discursive pronouncements; but Hawthorne delivered 

The American Adam 

his most cogent opinions and his principal doubts by the more artful 
means of stories about writers and artists. 

There are a surprising number of the latter; and, indeed, in Haw- 
thorne's tales and novels the moral agents persons of no stated voca- 
tion who are simply vessels of ambition or guilt or wayward desire 
seem almost to alternate as main characters with those who are artists 
by profession: the unnamed painter of "The Prophetic Pictures"; 
Drowne, the carver of the wooden image; Owen Warland, the gold- 
smith in "The Artist of the Beautiful"; Ken yon, the sculptor, and 
Miriam and Hilda, painters, in The Marble Faun; Coverdale, the poet 
in The Blithedale Romance; Holgrave, the daguerreotypist in The 
House of the Seven Gables. The number of them testifies to the curious 
significance that Hawthorne attributed to his own profession; and the 
alternation testifies to his deep sense of the analogy. 

Something further was probably at work in the bundle of artistic 
anecdotes: namely, a certain perplexity on Hawthorne's part, prompt- 
ed by the same misgivings he spoke of in the Preface. In more recent 
fiction the ubiquity of the artist as hero has meant one of two things: 
that the writer (like Joyce) has hit upon the artist as the representa- 
tive figure in the modern world or that the writer (like Gide) has found 
it so difficult to cope with the shadowless fragmentations of the im- 
mediate scene that he is forced to take that difficulty as the only sub- 
ject he can bear living witness to. In the latter case, one is presented 
less with the imitation of an action than with the trials of the imita- 
tor; the artist in the work is not so much a hero as an apology for the 
absence of a hero; literature doubles back on itself and becomes 
obsessed with the task of exploiting its own tribulations. 

A century ago, the American scene not because it was falling 
apart, but inversely because it had not yet come together gave some 
warrant to the self-consuming anxiety which issued in poetry about 
poetry and the troubled self-portrait. Hawthorne exhibited an uneasy 
awareness of the almost wilful contemporary impoverishment of ar- 
tistic resources; perhaps this accounts for the proportion of artists 
among the characters he invented or at least for the proportion of 
frustrated artists, like Miriam and Owen Warland and Coverdale. 
Hawthorne's anxiety was increased by his conviction that creativity 
was an analogous, possibly even an alternate, route to salvation. For 
Hawthorne could neither share the belief of his Puritan ancestors that 
the artistic enterprise was at best a mere trope for the really impres- 
sive work of the rescue of the human soul; nor could he arrive at the 
later romantic avowal that what had formerly been described as the 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

rescue of the soul was in reality a concealed metaphor for the greatest 
human accomplishment that is, for art. 

It was a matter, for Hawthorne, of an analogy almost amounting 
to an equivalence and, on the whole, an equivalence of difficulty and 
frustration. Thus, in 'The Artist of the Beautiful" (1843), Owen War- 
land is willing to seek fulfilment either in "life" (via love and marriage 
and acceptance within the village community) or in the making of 
beautiful objects. Frustrated in life, he turns to art; and when he has 
fashioned an object of supreme beauty, it is destroyed by the clumsy 
hands of those same persons who had previously rejected him. The 
story closes with a reflection much admired by Melville and seeming 
to point to a resolution: "When an artist rises high enough to achieve 
the beautiful, the symbol by which he made it perceptible to mortal 
sense became of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possessed itself 
in the enjoyment of the reality." But I think we should take this as 
ironic, since the story it concludes is itself a perceptible symbol and 
indestructible; the conclusion is, in fact, a knowing description of the 
habitual recourse of the thwarted transcendentalizing imagination. 

The hopeful, and especially the transcendental, critic pinned his 
faith on the Now, as the subject of fiction and poetry: the Now purged 
of accretions from the past. Hawthorne remarked, in another but 
relevant context, that the "visionary and impalpable Now ... if you 
once look closely at it, is nothing." And, indeed, the stuff of the Now 
did tend to evaporate, under artistic scrutiny. Yet the hopeful critic 
continued to insist that the Now was the only portion of time impor- 
tant to the writer, because if the immediate could be jostled long 
enough, beams of the Eternal would begin to show up in it; and it was 
with the Eternal that poetry had to deal. This was the tactic of writ- 
ers like Emerson and Thoreau, and occasionally even of Herman Mel- 
ville: they manipulated the concrete and transient to the point where, 
in the climaxes of paragraphs, they could set off metaphysical sky- 
rockets. And the creative spirit thereupon possessed itself in the enjoy- 
ment of the higher "reality." This was the procedure proper to what 
Allen Tate has called the "angelic imagination": the imagination 
prompted by the assumption that humans, like angels, can have direct 
perception of timeless essences. Now if anyone was certain that men 
were not in any respect like angels, it was Nathaniel Hawthorne; 
though he was restless and heretical enough to wish sometimes that 
they were and to tell, as in the tale of Owen Warland or of Aylmer in 
"The Birthmark," the sad story of someone who thought so. Given 
his conviction, however, Hawthorne could never rest in Owen War- 

The American Adam 

land's complacency; he had to do what, according to Mr. Tate, "the 
symbolic imagination" always had to do: "to return to the order of 
temporal sequence to action' 9 

Hawthorne returned to "the order of temporal sequence" for the 
purpose of getting beyond it. He wanted to be in touch with the eter- 
nal as much as did the transcendentalists; but he suspected that men, 
imperfect animals that they were, saw through time rather than over 
it or around it. When he forgot this suspicion, he tended to indulge in 
those concetti which Henry James rightly regarded as his greatest 
weakness. 2 When he remembered, he enlisted his language on the side 
of the actual in such a way that he was able to look within occurrences 
for signs of recurrence, to probe the action for what it re-enacted. He 
listened for echoes. For Hawthorne at his best, it was a question of the 
right quotation: a very hard question in an age which thought it 
slavish to quote. The moral and artistic awareness Hawthorne was 
struggling to realize has been expressed in our generation by Thomas 
Mann: "Life so to speak in quotation is a kind of celebration, in that 
it is a making present of the past." But the awareness urged upon 
Hawthorne's generation was indicated in Emerson's abrupt little 
sentence: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." This was a 
painful utterance for anyone who felt that telling what he knew was 
precisely what quotations were good for. It was just that contempt 
for the past as the source of symbols explanatory of the present 
which led to Hawthorne's anxiety about the profession he had chosen; 
his anxiety was dramatized in his stories about artists. But in The 
Marble Faun, Hawthorne tackled the job of exploiting even the 
anxiety: of finding the right quotation for the hatred or ignorance of 
quotation itself. 


The Marble Faun describes a double or perhaps a triple return into 
time: the return of art itself as expressed by analogy in the enforced 
and tragic return of the hero and the hero's artist-lover. On the literal 
level there is simply the return of a young man to the city of Rome 
to surrender himself to justice. The vibrations of that return bear 
testimony to Hawthorne's expert sense of the right relation between 
character and setting. Cooper was right to place his Adamic hero, at 
the moment of his rebirth, in the benign and timeless forest beyond 
the frontier. Hawthorne was no less astute to lead his own Adam to 

2. In a little-known essay on Hawthorne, contained in Library of the World* s Best 
Literature, edited by Charles Dudley Warner (New York, 1897), XII, 7055. 

f 120 I 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

his transfiguring experience in an environment dense with the linked 
histories of several scores of generations. Donatello in The Marble 
Faun is the most innocent person and the figure least conscious of the 
force and challenge of time in nineteenth-century American literature, 
with the exception of Billy Budd. And he is introduced in the midst 
of an immeasurable and continuously influential antiquity an an- 
tiquity which touches him not at all, until he has sinned. 

The novel's plot verges more than once on incoherence and wanders 
somewhat helplessly for about a dozen chapters, while we wonder 
whether Hawthorne will find the sustaining power to finish it. The 
Marble Faun is not the best and probably not even the second-best of 
Hawthorne's novels; but its deficiencies are deficiencies of talent 
rather than of genius. The incoherence, that is, remains for the most 
part superficial and in the execution; it only slightly impairs our view 
of the classical design of the action. With an eye on the action, we may 
reduce the plot to the following incidents: 

Donatello, a young Italian nobleman of great simplicity and charm, en- 
counters in Rome a group of visiting artists: two Americans, Kenyon and 
Hilda, and a beautiful dark-haired Anglo-Jewish woman, Miriam. Falling in 
love with Miriam, Donatello becomes aware of some mysterious event in her 
early private history, and of the continuing pressure exerted by a Capuchin 
monk, evidently a participant in the event, who now lurks menacingly on the 
the periphery of Miriam's new life. 

Incited by Miriam's fear of the Capuchin, her violent desire to be free of 
him, and perhaps an actual gesture of encouragement, Donatello murders 
him. Donatello flees Rome to his country estate at Monte Beni in the Apen- 
nines, to brood on the meaning of his act and upon his own muddled responses 
to it. Miriam follows him. They meet and agree that neither of them may 
escape the consequences of the crime. Donatello returns to Rome and gives 
himself up; he is last heard of in the depths of a civil prison. But the experi- 
ence has transformed him into a man. 

Miriam returns to give herself up to a life of penance, entering upon a 
pilgrimage to last as long as Donatello's imprisonment, which may be life- 
long. Their friends, Kenyon and Hilda, having in some degree shared in the 
tragedy, are its survivors; and the gloom of the conclusion is faintly lit by the 
subdued joy of their discovery of each other and their belief however 
faltering in the value of the adventure they have all of them shared. 

Thus the plot: an assortment of rather melodramatic incidents with 
those Mysteries-of-Udolpho overtones later complained of by Eliot. 
Donatello's resemblance to the marble faun of Praxiteles gave the 
novel its American title. The Marble Faun is apt enough as regards the 
plot; but Transformation, the title supplied by the English publishers, 
is a better index to the action; and it may be because Hawthorne 

I 121 I 

The American Adam 

knew that action only becomes realized in plot that he referred to the 
English publishers as pigheaded. That action is the transformation of 
the soul in its journey from innocence to conscience: the soul's realiza- 
tion of itself under the impact of and by engagement with evil the 
tragic rise born of the fortunate fall. It is a New World action my 
supposition is that it is the New World action, the tragic remainder 
of what Lawrence called the myth of America. It is what has to happen 
to "golden youth" if it is to mature; and the novel is the kind of novel 
which had to be written if the young literature was to mature. Dona- 
tello, though purportedly an Italian aristocrat, is nonetheless the hero 
of the hopeful, seen in a tragic perspective: the figure who, in ap- 
proaching experience, comes up against the social world under the 
great, appealing illusion that (in the words of Horace Bushnell) he is 
"a free person [who has] just begun to be." 

The outline of Donatello's personality is made known to us through 
the recurring imagery of Eden: imagery employed in the beginning 
only by Hawthorne; then, after the "Fall," by Kenyon and Hilda; 
and only at the last by Miriam. This progression of insight and recog- 
nition is the core of the story. To Miriam, stifled by her own envelop- 
ing history, Donatello appears as "a creature in a state of development 
less than what mankind has attained"; less than mankind, yet oddly 
more perfect; a "creature of simple elements," part animal and part 
child, manifesting a kinship to "that wild, sweet, playful, rustic 
creature" whose marble image he resembled, and manifesting, too, the 
unreasoning variability of animals the docility of the pet spaniel, the 
tenacity of the bulldog. The action of The Marble Faun is the as- 
sumption of total manhood by this child-animal. The young innocent 
becomes entangled (in the way Bushnell predicted that, given the 
world, he would have to be) with the net of pre-existing relationships 
involvements which, like those between Miriam and the Capuchin, 
the hero's very character makes it impossible for him to intuit or 
guard himself against. The action concludes not only with the hero's 
assumption of manhood but with the imaginative grasp by Miriam 
and more uneasily by Kenyon of the meaning and the value of the sin 
and suffering which manhood requires. 

The action has to do with the discovery of time as a metaphor of the 
experience of evil. Rome is thus the best imaginable setting; nothing 
in the New World could match it. What was wanted, for the maxi- 
mum effect, was maximum antiquity a symbol coexistent, if pos- 
sible, with the temporal order itself; and Rome is identified in the 
story as "the city of all time." The seven-gabled home of the Pyn- 

f 122! 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

cheons had reached back a century or so to the Puritan period, and 
Hawthorne did all he could with it. But Rome, Hawthorne remarks 
on the opening page of The Marble Faun y reaches back through a 
"threefold antiquity" Christian, Roman, Etruscan. And it is in 
dramatic contrast to such massive age that the hero is then promptly 
introduced as an "Arcadian simpleton." The tension between the 
simpleton unconscious of time and the infinitely history-laden envi- 
ronment parallels the introductory tension of The Scarlet Letter; be- 
tween Hester Prynne and the hostile community. The action in The 
Scarlet Letter^ discharged by that opening tableau, follows Hester's 
effort to escape from the community and her eventual return into it, 
to spend her life there as an increasingly revered member. In The 
Marble Faun, the action unfolds from its starting point: in terms of 
Donatello's consciousness of the quality, the content, the pressures of 
time. It is thus only after the sin and the flight that Donatello seems 
to grow aware of his own ancestry explaining to Kenyon, at Monte 
Beni, that his family history goes back beyond the Middle Ages to 
earliest Christendom and perhaps to a time before that. Donatello's 
family, like the city of Rome, has a multiple antiquity; and his ac- 
ceptance of the burden of inheritance may be his way of coming to 
terms with all that Rome represents in the novel: with the world. 

The degree of actual tension in The Marble Faun is the degree of 
Hawthorne's divided sympathies toward the contending factors. And 
he was not less ambivalent toward time than he had been toward the 
Puritan community. His involvement with time, always profound, 
had always been notably ambiguous. It was not a metaphysical in- 
terest; Hawthorne had been concerned not with the ontological status 
of time, but with its contents and effects: not with time as a concept, 
but with the coloration it lent to the things it perpetuated and with 
the value or the misfortune of sustained temporal relations. He had a 
passion for sources and beginnings, for traditions and continuities, 
and resented in America the scantiness of histories. Though Tocque- 
ville was unduly impressed by the claims of the hopeful and had 
doubted that American poetry would "be fed with legends or the 
memorials of old traditions," Hawthorne never seemed able to get 
hold of legends and traditions enough. He wore out the few he could 
find; and it may have been to refurbish his stock that in 1853 he con- 
sented to go to Europe as his government's representative. In Europe, 
where he tripped over unchanging traditions and customs in appalling 
abundance, his resentment veered around toward the ancient. 

"At home," Henry James remarked (1895), "he had fingered the 

The American Adam 

musty; but abroad he seemed to pine for freshness." Both sides of the 
observation can be matched by its opposite. Even in the American 
days, the musty needed the fresh in the shaping of rewarding experi- 
ence: this is the very formula that somewhat tamely concludes The 
House of the Seven Gables. And while, in England, Hawthorne con- 
signed to the flames the accumulated treasures ("rubbish") of the 
British Museum and wondered how human aspiration could tolerate 
English social immobility, nonetheless in Paris he lamented fluidity 
and thought that nothing worth while could take root there. 

Hawthorne himself had identified his generation's major ideal in 
the image of Adam, and he both celebrated and deplored it. The indi- 
vidual divorced from his racial or family past seemed to Hawthorne 
at once a liberated person and a lost son: an orphan, as he also had 
been. Such an ambivalence, the very stuflf of drama, stayed with 
Hawthorne to the end; even in the inchoate and unfinished Dr. 
Grimshawe's Secret (posthumous, 1883), the hero, Redclyffe, is an 
orphan cast afloat in the American world, who travels to England, 
motivated by "a great deal of foolish yearning for a connection with 
the past." Redclyffe's nostalgia is for the kind of "density" he finds 
in the atmosphere of an English country estate: a thickening of life 
and character caused by the hidden vitality of the past. In such a 
place, Redclyffe supposes, "the life of each successive dweller was 
eked out with the lives of all who had hitherto lived there ... so that 
there was a rare and successful contrivance for giving length, fullness, 
body, substance, to this thin frail matter of human life." Yet Red- 
clyffe stubbornly votes for America and returns there; America's 
homes were mere "tents of a day, inns of a night"; but, though its 
atmosphere was much thinner, it was also much freer. That was Haw- 
thorne's personal conclusion, too, after a comparable meditation in 

The Marble Faun was a dramatization on a large scale of these 
many fertile contradictions. The question of density was as relevant 
to art as to life. Fulness and substance for his thin, frail materials was 
just what the American artist needed, according to Hawthorne; and 
Rome offered the narrative artist every contrivance for giving such 
substance to the events recounted. Rome's "very dust ... is historic," 
it is noted; and every fragment of church or temple is "a great solid 
fact out of the past." Hawthorne extended himself to exploit each in- 
dication of the past as the source of life in the present: newly built 
houses are "perched on the lofty delapidations of a tomb"; the Capu- 
chin, for a Gothic moment, is confused with a legendary Wandering 

The Return into Time: Hawthorne 

Pagan, lost in the Catacombs for fifteen hundred years; life feeds on 
death; Christianity is bolstered by paganism; the past is everywhere 
the exemplar or the substructure of the present. But the cumulative 
force of those associations, strained as some of them may be, is precisely 
to give maximum meaning to Miriam's cry of desperate and ebbing 
hope: "Is the past so indestructible, the future so immitigable?" The 
tension of the novel is provided by the vigor of Miriam's effort to es- 
cape the consequences of her private past and the solidity of the "fact" 
of the past in general. 

The tension is illuminated by analogous oppositions within the field 
of artistic creation. Hilda, after a brief attempt at original creation, 
yields entirely to the work of copying the old masters; but her honesty 
and her heightened enjoyment of the beauty contrived by others are 
contrasted with the pretenses of an English sculptor who cooks up 
lifeless imitations of the antique and is an effete slave ( Kenyon thinks) 
to something "whose business or efficacy in our present world, it would 
be exceedingly difficult to define." Miriam turns her back altogether 
on the art of the past, claiming to paint wholly from the self and about 
the self; and her self-portrait becomes an unconscious imitation of the 
very painting the "Beatrice" of Guido which Hilda is currently 
engaged in copying. 

This is one of the major "epiphanies" in the book one of the major 
moments of reversal and recognition and a crucial event in Miriam's 
education. It makes possible a recognition by her of the mythic model 
for the adventure she has shared with Donatello; and that recognition 
is the means of accepting it, appraising the experience, and knowing 
what to do about it. It is Donatello who acts and is acted upon, but 
it is Miriam who is gifted with the perception that controls the action 
at last and rounds out the novel. "The story of the fall of man! Is it not 
repeated in our romance of Monte Beni?" 

The value of the identification is a sudden tremendous deepening 
of insight. Miriam explores the analogy further: the authentic manli- 
ness of the former child-animal Donatello may, she believes, offer a 
clue to an ancient mystery. "Was that very sin into which Adam 
precipitated himself and all his race was it the destined means by 
which, over a long pathway of toil and sorrow, we are to attain a high- 
er, brighter, and profounder happiness, than our lost birthright gave?" 
If the Fall was, after all, immensely fortunate, so then was Donatello's 
re-enactment of the Fall. Miriam is saved by the analogy: by her 
grasp of the analogy. 

And so, perhaps, is Kenyon. A little later, he confronts Hilda with 

1 1*5 1 

The American Adam 

the novel's concluding ambiguity: that the adventure has proved 
life too "deadly serious" for anyone, like Donatello, "compounded 
especially for happiness"; or that Donatello's adventure illustrates the 
fact that "Adam fell that we might ultimately rise to a far loftier 
paradise than his." Hilda is far too "hopeful and happy-natured" to 
settle for either. A small shudder runs through the final pages at the 
suggestion of a fortunate fall; yet the lingering, uneasy impression re- 
mains that there has been demonstrated in action what the elder 
James had argued in theory. Hilda, and all the world, may call 
Donatello's action a crime or a sin. But his fall was in many serious 
respects an upward step an entrance into that true reality which, 
for Hawthorne, is measured by time. 

Wandering through the vineyards near Donatello's country estate, 
Kenyon speculates on Donatello's action and the astonishing mental 
and moral maturity it has bred in him. In the physical scenery about 
him Kenyon senses an answer by metaphor to the speculations that 
trouble him. He looks upon the setting "with somewhat the sensations 
of an adventurer who should find his way to the site of ancient Eden, 
and behold its loveliness through the transparency of gloom which has 
been brooding over those haunts of innocence ever since the fall." The 
gloom is there, but perhaps it has a greater beauty than the original. 
"Adam," reflects Kenyon, "saw it in a brighter sunshine, but never 
knew the shade of pensive beauty which Eden won from his expul- 
sion." The language and the response suggest that here is an adjust- 
ment to time which offers a control for life. To the eye of the artist, 
the color of time was very much richer than the blankness of the 
original sunshine. For such was the nature of man. 

f 126! 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

I bless his story, 
The Good Being hung and gone to glory. 


THE Marble Faun completed a cycle of adventures carrying a rep- 
resentative American fictional hero from his ritual birth (in 
Cooper) through a "fall" which can be claimed as fortunate because of 
the growth in perception and moral intelligence granted the hero as a 
result of it. If we abstract an anecdote, in this hazardous way, from a 
series of novels taken in sequence, we find something dealt with so 
often and so variously by American writers after Hawthorne that it 
may be regarded as the major (if not the only) "matter 1 ' by which 
they have sought to advance their craft. We can call it "the matter of 
Adam," since for those who have recognized it Hawthorne, Melville, 
James, and Faulkner at the least it was as usable as "the matter of 
France" or "the matter of Troy" once was for poets in the medieval 
world. It has been the primary stuff by which the American novelist 
has managed to articulate his sense of the form and pressure of expe- 
rience and by which he has extended the possibilities of the art of fic- 
tion. In this chapter we consider how the one novelist in nineteenth- 
century America gifted with a genuinely myth-making imagination 
was able to elevate the anecdote to the status of myth, and so give it 
a permanent place among the resources of our literature. 

The matter of Adam: the ritualistic trials of the young innocent, 
liberated from family and social history or bereft of them; advancing 
hopefully into a complex world he knows not of; radically affecting 
that world and radically affected by it; defeated, perhaps even de- 

1. From a fragment contained in the so-called "Daniel Orme manuscript," i.e., an 
unfinished anecdote, intended to be part of Billy Budd and presumably dealing with the 
life of the old Dansker in that novella. The fragment seems a variation on the ballad, 
"Billy in the Darbies," which closes Bitty Budd (Melville's Billy Budd, ed. F. Baron 
Freeman [Cambridge, Mass., 1948], p. 282). 

The American Adam 

stroyed in various versions of the recurring anecdote hanged, beaten, 
shot, betrayed, abandoned but leaving his mark upon the world, and 
a sign in which conquest may later become possible for the survivors. 
In hoc signo vince: the analogy is inescapable, and it was Herman Mel- 
ville who first made it manifest. 

The Adamic hero is the equivalent, in American fiction, of the 
prince or king in the long tradition of classical drama. The telling dis- 
tinction is one of strategic distance: the distance at the outset between 
the hero and the world he must cope with. For the traditional hero is 
at the center of that world, the glass of its fashion, the symbol of its 
power, the legatee of its history. But the American hero as Adam 
takes his start outside the world, remote or on the verges; its power, 
its fashions, and its history are precisely the forces he must learn, must 
master or be mastered by. Oedipus, approaching the strange city- 
world of Thebes, was in fact coming home; the hero of the new world 
has no home to begin with, but he seeks one to come. 

The Adamic hero is an "outsider," but he is "outside" in a curious- 
ly staunch and artistically demanding manner. He is to be distin- 
guished from the kind of outsider the dispossessed, the superfluous, 
the alienated, the exiled who began to enter European fiction in the 
nineteenth century and who crowds its almost every page in the 
twentieth. A distinguished critic of Conrad, Morton Zabel, has listed 
the major causes of "alone-ness" for Conrad's heroes, and the list will 
serve, I think, for many another European writer obsessed with the 
same theme: "A man may be alone because he is a banished wastrel 
who has made life a law unto himself . . . because he is young and ir- 
responsible . . . because fate has estranged him from the ties of normal 
life . . . because he has become disgraced in the eyes of society or be- 
trayed by a false confidence or idealism . . . because he has betrayed 
a trust . . . because he fosters the intolerance and arrogance of self- 
willed pride . . . or because . . . a fatal vein of skepticism in his nature 
has induced a nihilism of all values." 2 Most of the outsiders in Euro- 
pean fiction of the past century may be catalogued under one or an- 
other of those heads, from Turgenev's superfluous men to Gide's bas- 
tards and Mann's artists, to the hero of the existentialists and the 
restless spiritual prowlers of Kafka and Greene (especially if we allow 
a theological flavor to words like "fate" and "society" in the quota- 
tion). But there is no satisfactory category there for Donatello or Red- 
burn, Pierre or Billy Budd, for Huck Finn or Daisy Miller, Isabel 
Archer or even Jay Gatsby. These are, by some magic of art, morally 

2. Morton D. Zabel, Introduction to the Viking Portable Conrad (New York, 1947). 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

prior to the world which nonetheless awaits them; as between them 
and the world, it can be questioned who is outside of whom. It is not, 
as with the European characters, that the realities of social experience 
and action catch up with them; but it is they who approach and enter 
into those realities, with alternative comic, disastrous, or triumphant 
consequences. Their creators seem ready to proffer their private dig- 
nity and their very amount of being as worthy to compare with the 
dignity and being of the public world something demanding a special 
gift of artistic duplicity. And even if Mr. Zabel's loci can contain 
Hester Prynne, Captain Ahab, and Faulkner's Joe Christmas, it can- 
not contain the whole of them; for they are tormented extensions and 
distortions of their Adamic prototypes. 

What is perhaps surprising is the regular recurrence of the hero as 
Adam, long after his story had been brought to its logical conclusion 
by Hawthorne and Melville. Two possible but opposite explanations 
for the endurance of the hero and the story suggest themselves. We 
may suppose that there has been a kind of resistance in America to 
the painful process of growing up, something mirrored and perhaps 
buttressed by our writers, expressing itself in repeated efforts to revert 
to a lost childhood and a vanished Eden, and issuing repeatedly in a 
series of outcries at the freshly discovered capacity of the world to 

On the other hand, when the narrative account of the hero as Adam 
is lit by the author's awareness of the American habit of resistance to 
maturity, then the continuing life both of the hero and of his story 
are evidence rather of cultural manhood. It has been said that America 
is always coming of age; but it might be more fairly maintaned that 
America has come of age in sections, here and there whenever its 
implicit myth of the American Adam has been a defining part of the 
writer's consciousness. When this has happened, the emergent mythol- 
ogy of the new world has been recognized and exploited as a stable 
resource; the writer has found means, at hand and at home, for a fresh 
definition of experience and a fresh contribution to the culture. This 
is what is meant, I take it, by cultural maturity. 

Melville is our most revealing example of both the contradictory 
inferences here suggested. He may or may not, as Professor Thompson 
has argued, 8 have engaged in a lifelong quarrel with God; but he cer- 
tainly engaged in a long quarrel with himself the kind of quarrel 
which, as Yeats said, makes poetry. For Melville took the loss of in- 
nocence and the world's betrayal of hope as the supreme challenge to 

3. Lawrence Thompson, Melville's Quarrel with God (Princeton, 1952). 

The American Adam 

understanding and to art. He wanted not to accept that betrayal; and 
for a while he kept going back over the ground of the experience as if 
to prove the betrayal untrue or avoidable. That illusory effort is part 
of the meaning of Redburn and most of the meaning of Pierre and 
ClareL But in the course of his deeply vexed odyssey, Melville found 
the resources for coming to terms with his losses: terms of extraordi- 
narily creative tension in Moby-Dick and terms of luminous resolution 
in Lilly Budd. His resources were moral and intellectual ones, but they 
were available to him only as he discovered the artistic resources. Ex- 
perience fulfilled and explained itself for Melville only and finally in 
language. He was the writer above all others who could have asked 
Forster's question: "How do I know what I think till I see what I 

What Melville thought at the end, when he saw everything he had 
said, was, curiously enough, a dialectially heightened value in some- 
thing he had supposed irretrievably destroyed. He found a new con- 
viction about the saving strength of the Adamic personality. When 
this conviction became articulate in Billy Buddy the American hero 
as Adam became the hero as Christ and entered, once and for all, into 
the dimension of myth. 


Only so much of Melville and his writing is relevant here as bears 
upon the history of the American Adam: as symbol of a possible indi- 
vidual condition, as type of hero for fiction. But it is in the nature of 
Melville's achievement that any fragment of his writing, or all of it 
together, can seem to respond directly to any serious question we ask 
of it. Any set of symbols, as Mark Van Doren gracefully remarked 
about The Tempest, "lights up as in an electric field" when moved close 
to a novel or novella of Herman Melville. The best of him corresponds 
to the "substances" mentioned in White-Jacket^ which "without 
undergoing any mutations in themselves, utterly change their colour, 
according to the light thrown upon them." Critical light, pumped out 
all too dazzlingly these latter years, has thus been able to disclose a 
multitude of Melvilles: the God-hating Melville, the father-seeking 
and castration-fearing Melville, the traditionalist-and-quasi-Catholic 
Melville; Melville the cabalistic grubber in obscure philosophies, Mel- 
ville the liberal democrat and defender of the vital center, and Melville 
the jaunty journalist of the adventures of boys at sea. Such proliferat- 
ing multisidedness is an evidence of genius, but not, in my opinion, of 
the very highest genius; and if there are already more Melvilles than 

1 130 1 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

there have ever been Dantes, it is partly because Dante's poetry is firm 
in an inner coherence and is not totally plastic to the critic. But a cer- 
tain lack of finish was a deliberate element in Melville's aesthetic as 
well as his metaphysic; and criticism can always finish the story ac- 
cording to its private enthusiasms. With this caveat, we may consider 
Melville the myth-maker at work upon the matter of Adam. 

We may begin with a passage from chapter 96 in Moby-Dick, "The 
Try- Works" taking the passage as a summary of Melville's attitude 
to innocence and evil; as an example of Melville's way with the 
material (attitudes, tropes, language) available to him; and as a guide 
for the rest of this chapter. 

The incident of "The Try-Works'* will be recalled. Ishmael falls 
asleep at the tiller one midnight, as the "Pequod" is passing through 
the Java seas heading northward toward the haunts of the great sperm 
whales. Waking up, but not yet aware that he has been asleep, Ishmael 
finds himself staring into the mouth of hell: "a jet gloom, now and 
then made ghastly by flashes of redness," an infernal scene through 
which giant shadow-shapes like devils are moving about some dread- 
ful work. He is "horribly conscious of something fatally wrong"; "a 
stark bewildered feeling as of death" comes over him. Then he realizes 
just in time to swing about, grasp the tiller, and save the ship from 
capsizing that he has turned in his sleep and is facing the two 
furnaces, or "try-pots," amidships, and the three black harpooners 
stoking the masses of whale blubber from which the oil is extracted 
("tryed-out"). The moral follows, the felt analogy between the natural 
event and the soul of man, offered by the Ishmael who tells the story 
after the whole of it has been completed: 

[1.] Look not too long in the face of fire, O man! Turn not thy back to the 
compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial 
fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural 
sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, 
the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief; the glorious, golden, 
glad sun, the only true lamp all others but liars. 

[2.] Nevertheless, the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's 
accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts 
and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark 
side of the earth, and which is two-thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that 
mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot 
be true not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men 
was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesi- 
astes is the fine-hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world 
hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet. But he who dodges 
hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk 

The American Adam 

of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils of sick 
men; and throughout a carefree lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, 
and therefore jolly; not that man is fitted to sit down on tombstones, and 
break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon. 

[3.] But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way 
of understanding shall remain" (i.e. even while living) "in the congregation of 
the dead." Give not thyself up then to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; 
as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe 
that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike 
dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become 
invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that 
gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop, the mountain 
eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

The passage divides into three paragraphs which are more nearly 
three stanzas, and I have marked them accordingly. The subject of 
this, one of the richest meditations in all of Melville, is the different 
degrees of moral alertness with variations on the realities present in 
the world and man, on the quality of moral illumination for the per- 
ceiver, on the states of being accompanying the various perceptions. 

There occur (as Ishmael sees it) two dangerous alternative condi- 
tions. On the one hand: an empty innocence, a tenacious ignorance of 
evil, which, granted the tough nature of reality, must be either im- 
maturity or spiritual cowardice. On the other: a sense of evil so in- 
flexible, so adamant in its refusal to admit the not less reducible fact 
of existent good that it is perilously close to a love of evil, a queer pact 
with the devil. Each alternative is a path toward destruction; the sec- 
ond is the very embrace of the destroying power. 

Now these two conditions have affinities with the contemporary 
moral visions of the party of Hope and the party of Memory. They 
could be grasped and expounded only by someone who had already 
by an effort of will and intelligence transcended them both. By the 
time he wrote Moby-Dick, Melville had dissociated himself in scorn 
from what he now regarded as the moral childishness of the hopeful. 4 
But he was not blind to that hypnosis by evil which a bankrupt Cal- 

4. Cf. Melville's annotations of his copies of Emerson's Essays (now in Houghton 
Library, Harvard). Checking one passage in Spiritual Laws, Melville added in the 
margin: "A perfectly good being, therefore, would see no evil But what did Christ see? 
He saw what made him weep." Checking Emerson's remark, "Trust men and they 
will be true to you," Melville commented: "God help the poor fellow who squares his 
life according to this." Emerson (in The Poet): "The evils of the world are such only to 
the evil eye"; and Melville: "What does the man mean? If Mr. Emerson travelling in 
Egypt should find a plague-spot come out on him would he consider that an evil sight 
or not? And if evil, would his eye be evil because it seemed evil to his eye . . . ?" "Still," 
Melville added characteristically, in another place (opposite a passage in Heroism), 
"these essays are noble." 

1 132 1 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

vinism had visited upon the nostalgic. He was beginning to share the 
good sense of Dante's Virgil, chiding Dante (in Inferno, XXX) for 
allowing himself to be momentarily transfixed by the spectacle of 
evil: "II voler cio udir e una bassa voglia" (it is vulgar to linger in 
the fire-lit darkness, for the end of our journey is the center of light). 

Melville, that is to say, had penetrated beyond both innocence and 
despair to some glimmering of a moral order which might explain and 
order them both, though his vision remained slender, as of that mo- 
ment, and the center of light not yet known, but only believed in 
and still ambiguously, at that. But, like the elder Henry James, Mel- 
ville had moved toward moral insight as far as he had just because 
he had begun to look at experience dramatically. He had begun to dis- 
cover its plot; and Melville understood the nature of plot, plot in gen- 
eral, better than anyone else in his generation. For Melville was a poet. 

So "alternative" is a misleading word, in speaking of any charac- 
teristic passage in Melville. Indeed, one way to grasp this passage and 
Melville's achievement in general is to notice that Melville is not pos- 
ing static alternatives but tracing a rhythmic progression in experi- 
ence and matching the rhythm as best he can in language. This is the 
way of a Platonist, and not of a polemicist; much more, it is the way 
of a poet. We still tend, for all the good criticism of our time, to read 
a poem the way we watch a tennis-match: turning our heads and 
minds back and forth between what we presume to be unchanging 
opponents, as though a poem moved between fixed choices of attitude 
before plumping conclusively for one of them as the unequivocal win- 
ner. The best kind of poem is a process of generation in which one 
attitude or metaphor, subjected to intense pressure, gives symbolic 
birth to the next, which reveals the color of its origin even as it gives 
way in turn by "dying into" its successor. Such a poem does not 
deal in dichotomies but in live sequences. 

Here, then, in "The Try-Works," we have a series of displacements. 
Artificial light gives way to natural light, darkness to morning, and the 
imperative to the indicative. Then dawn and sunlight yield to dark- 
ness, to the moon and "the dark side of the earth" to hell, to sick- 
ness, and to death. But hell and death are the source at last of a new 
and loftier life, new "sunny spaces" and new imperatives. Those sunny 
spaces are not the same bright skies of the opening stanza. The moral 
imagination which contemplates the sunny spaces in stanza 3 has 
been radically affected by the vision of hell and death at mid-point. 
The sunny spaces (tragic optimism) relate to the earlier morning skies 
(empty-headed cheerfulness) as does the Catskill eagle to "the other 

1 133 I 

The American Adam 

birds upon the plain"; it is the sky, as the eagle is a bird but bird and 
sky have been raised to a higher power. 

What Melville has done here is to accomplish what, in an ugly 
phrase translated from Nietszche, has been called "the transvaluation 
of values": something which Melville had to do in his poet's way, by 
what we perhaps can call the ' 'transfiguration of figures." The figures 
are drawn from Melville's own cultural environment; their transfigu- 
ration here is a pricis of Melville's development and of this chapter. 

The passage may be cited as Melville's guess about the design of 
experience. Like Hawthorne, Melville testified to a spiritual journey 
from sunlight through the fires of hell to a final serenity. But Haw- 
thorne's guess was present to his mind before he started writing; the 
writing merely tested it. It was what remained to him of a shredding 
religious tradition, and it was a guess rather than a creed just because 
the tradition was in shreds. But for Melville the business of writing 
was not so much a test as a consummation. His guess was what he 
came out with only after his experience had drawn significance out of 
his account of it in 'anguage. 

He had to come far, in order, by December, 1850, to make even the 
tentative guess contained in chapter 96 of Moby-Dick. We can follow 
him on his way by looking briefly at some of his experiences and a 
couple of his books prior to Moby-Dick: Typee and Redburn. With the 
"Try-Works" passage as a guide, we find Typee corresponding in 
mood to the morning spirit of stanza 1; and Redburn to the sense of 
sickness in stanza 2. During his apprentice years, Melville had lacked 
the well-rounded sense of life's potential that Hawthorne had had 
from the outset. He tended to hang on to each successive discovery 
with exaggerated intensity, as though it were the whole of the truth; 
and he released his grasp and clutched at the fresh perception only 
when he had acquired the means of a fresh articulation. The measure 
of achievement in Moby-Dick is the measure of great new resources 
greatly possessed. 


Melville, who came of age in 1840 during the years when hopeful- 
ness was all the fashion, began his career as an unstable but energetic 
member of the forward-looking party. When he got around to reflect- 
ing on the American writer, he added his more robust accent to the 
hopeful program for literature: "This Vermont morning dew is as wet 
to my feet as Eden's dew to Adam's. . . . We want no American Gold- 
smiths; nay we want no American Mil tons. . . . Let us boldly condemn 

1 134! 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

all imitation." The accent was the product of personal experience; for 
Melville had long since contributed his robust symbolic gesture to that 
series of gestures by which the hopeful had signalized the driving 
motion from memory to hope. For Emerson, who could make so much 
out of so little, it had been enough to leave his Concord study and go 
tramping in mud puddles; Thoreau went farther, a few miles into the 
near-by woods to little Walden Pond. Melville's gesture was more 
sweeping and extravagant he "jumped off" by crossing the Pacific 
and jumping ship to plunge into the interior of a primitive island. His 
action characterized a man whose imagination could expand into the 
mythic just because it was steadily nourished by the roughness of the 
actual. But as an act and as a kind of act, it assured the sequel: for in 
so all-engaging an assault upon life, Melville could scarcely avoid 
bumping into that part of it which was bitter, ugly, and destructive. 

Melville and his friend Toby jumped ship in July, 1843. According 
to his account of the event two years later in Typee, the escape was 
made during a tremendous storm, and the first night was passed in a 
violence of wind and rain which left the narrator with "cold shiverings 
and a burning fever" before the morning revealed "the beautiful 
scene" of the sunlit "Happy Valley." This suggests the transition ac- 
complished more or less consciously in the book, even if only partially 
during the actual experience a transition from the alarming night 
which begins "The Try-Works" meditation to the "natural sun" and 
the bright skies of "tomorrow," when "the morn will show in ... 
gentler relief." The mood of Typee is pretty well warmed by "the 
golden, glorious, glad sun." Amid the wholly natural, preconventional 
life of the island paradise and during his Adam-and-Eve relation with 
Fayaway, Melville found a "continual happiness" and a surface beau- 
ty without blemish. "There seemed to be no cares, griefs, troubles, or 
vexation in all Typee." By contrast, civilization looked to Melville, 
from Typee, the way it would look to Thoreau, from his hut at Wal- 
den: a fantastic scene of self-imposed torments "a thousand self- 
inflicted discomforts," as Melville said, with "a hundred evils in 

Yet it was the very absence of cares and griefs and troubles that 
turned out to be unendurable. Melville stayed in fact less than a 
month in the Happy Valley; in Typee, he stayed over four months, for 
he was always able to invade and then enlarge ordinary units of time, 
he saw so much in any one moment; but he did depart at last, both in 
fact and in the book. In neither case was he altogether clear why such 
continual happiness was unacceptable. There was, to be sure, the occa- 

The American Adam 

sional danger of being cooked and eaten; but Melville realized later 
that there had been a much greater danger of permanently arrested 
development. "That mortal man," Ishmael would say for him, "who 
hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true 
not true or undeveloped." All he could say at the time was that 
Polynesian life never advanced into the realm of spirit; its buoyancy, 
though extreme, came entirely from a "sense of mere physical exist- 
ence." Melville's response was comparable to Thoreau's complaint 
that his neighbor, the French-Canadian backwoodsman, was an ani- 
mal, a child. Life, in the Typee valley, was restricted to the visible 
spheres of love; it was Melville's restless ambition to penetrate to the 
invisible spheres, and it was his lot to find out that those were the 
spheres which were formed in fright. 

So Melville returned to America. He never stopped "jumping off"; 
but after his return in 1845, the act was more purely symbolic and was 
coextensive with Melville's effort to become a writer. The act now 
consisted in dispatching hero after hero, Adam after Adam, in novel 
after novel sending them forth like Whitman's child, full of hopeful 
expectancy, only to tell how, in every case, they fell among cannibals: 
Wellingborough Redburn, the lad called "White-Jacket," Pierre 
Glendinning, and Billy Budd. 

In Redburn (1849), the Adamic coloration of the experience which 
most interested Melville became explicit. This has been remarked by 
Melville's best commentator, Newton Arvin, who observes that the 
boy-hero of the novel "sets out from his mother's house in a state of 
innocence like that before the fall"; and the voyage to Liverpool and 
back comprises for young Redburn "the initiation of innocence into 
evil." Here we are at the second stage of Ishmael's soliloquy: the ex- 
ploration of the degree of sickness in the world, of hospitals and jails 
and graveyards, of deserts and griefs and "Virginia's Dismal Swamp." 
For Melville and Redburn the swamp is not a comforting assurance 
of nature's variety, as it was for Thoreau. Much of the physical and 
spiritual disease the young lad discovers is packed symbolically into 
the demonic figure of the sailor Jackson; and Jackson is introduced 
eating a bowl of mush that "looked for all the world like . . . the Dis- 
mal Swamp of Virginia." With the appearance of Jackson, the con- 
sciousness alive in the story passes from the opening mood of elemen- 
tary cheerfulness to the injured tone at the novel's center. 

But the emphasis in Redburn is perhaps less upon what happens to 
the boy himself than upon the wretchedness and depravity that are 
uncovered as existing independently of him in the world; Redburn 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

emerges with, at most, a sort of jocular but puzzled ruefulness, like 
that of Major Molineux's disillusioned cousin in Hawthorne's story. 
The Liverpool through which Redburn wanders, growing ever more 
appalled at its stench of corruption, may well remind us of the plague- 
and crime-ridden Philadelphia of Arthur Mervyn; but Redburn is 
more the passive spectator than the ludicrous reformer. What Red- 
burn beholds in Launcelot's-Hey, along the dock walls, and in "the 
booble alleys" of Liverpool merely adds to the cluster of scabrous im- 
pressions that began with the deceitful pawnshop-keeper in New York 
and continued with the drunken sailor who jumps overboard on Red- 
burn's first nightwatch and the plague which breaks out among the 
passengers. All these impressions become concentrated and intensified 
for Redburn, in the "foul lees and dregs of a man" which were all that 
remained of the dying Jackson. It is Jackson who reveals to Redburn 
the power of the scabrous, the terrible power of mental superiority 
when it possesses a nerve of the diabolic. "He was the weakest man, 
bodily, of the crew"; but he was the crew's bully. His power operated 
through and not in spite of his wasted appearance; and the strength 
of his fascination for Redburn (who is aware, though only very dimly 
indeed, that Jackson in turn is covertly fascinated by him) suggests 
something not yet articulated about disease in the world at large. Yet, 
while Jackson is a wicked man, as Redburn tells himself in his Sunday- 
school language; there is a still deeper possibility that "his wicked- 
ness seemed to spring from his woe." 

This conjunction of sickness and power and wickedness and sorrow 
is the substance of Redburn: these and the impression they make upon 
the lad's character. But if there is something more astir in the novel, 
it derives from another dead figure: Redburn's father not from his 
presence but from the acknowledgment of his absence. In Liverpool, 
taking with him a guidebook which his father had used to explore that 
very city "years and years ago," Redburn sets forth to follow his 
father through the town, "performing a filial pilgrimage/' The sense 
of his father becomes so vivid that Redburn feels that, if he hurries, 
he will "overtak[e] him around the Town Hall ... at the head of 
Castle Street." Both the hope and the guidebook are cheats; the 
guidebook is half a century out of date, and his father is not just 
around that corner or any other: "He had gone whither no son's search 
could find him in this world." This is the moment when Melville's hero 
realizes that he is an orphan; but since the realization comes together 
with the discovery of the amount of destructive unhealthiness in the 
world and in human nature, it has little of the hopeful joy of a libera- 

The American Adam 

tion from family and history. It partakes rather of the tragic feeling 
of the lost son, or even, perhaps, of the son betrayed. 

We ought to locate the moment chronologically not in 1839, when 
young Herman Melville actually did visit Liverpool, but ten years 
later, when he was investing that visit with meaning in the writing of 
Redburn. For in that book, two perceptions which would be the mak- 
ing of Melville as an artist hovered on the verge of fusion the be- 
trayal by the father and the corruption in nature. These were the ele- 
ments which decisively shaped Melville's treatment of the hopeful 
legend: what we may cautiously call the "objective" the knot of 
hostility in the very structure of created things; and the "subjective" 
the bubbling-up of whatever Melville had suffered during those 
dreadful weeks in 1831 when his bankrupt father went mad and died, 
leaving behind (abandoning, deserting, as it must have seemed to the 
bewildered child) a lost, helpless, poverty-stricken family. These were 
the elements and the perceptions which took the form of a growing re- 
sentment in Melville: something which only just begins to get into the 
writing of Redburn^ but which had, as Auden puts it, to "blow itself 
quite out" in the books that followed. 

Moby-Dick begins where Redburn leaves off. The hero, all too 
absorbed in his contemplation of that "hopper of misfortune" to which 
Redburn alludes in his closing pages, is now "growing grim about the 
mouth." He has a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul; he pauses 
before coffin warehouses and falls into line in funeral processions. He 
wants to knock people's hats off and speculates about suicide. He has 
come so far from the saluting of the glad sun of morning that he feels 
most at home seated on a tombstone. No one should miss the fine, 
firm, knowing humor of these sentences in the first chapter of Moby- 
Dick. It is the firmest humor in the world: the humor which results 
from tragedy, and specifically from the "tragedy of mind" symboli- 
cally re-enacted in the story of Moby-Dick. But Moby-Dick, for all its 
humor, is, of course, a novel ablaze with anger. Yet it is the humor, 
or what the humor represents, that makes us fully aware of the scope 
of the anger. 

What had been a mere rustle of resentment over a world false to 
the promises of hope had grown, by 1851, into a fury of disenchant- 
ment: Adam gone mad with disillusion. Moby-Dick manages to give 
very clear voice to that fury. If Melville could not yet overcome his 
anger, he was able to do something which a number of his critics would 
regard as better. He was able to hold his anger in balance, which may 
have been the only way to bring it alive and make it clear. Melville 

c 138 1 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

had discovered how to establish an attitude toward his own sense of 
outrage or, inversely, how to establish his outrage in relation to a 
comprehensive and in some ways traditional attitude. The relation 
expresses itself in Moby-Dick in the actual dramatic relation between 
frenzied Ahab and far-seeing Ishmael; and psychologizing critics 
might tell us that what happens in the novel is the "splitting-ofF" of 
a personality first introduced as Ishmael into fragments of itself one 
still called Ishmael, others called Ahab and Starbuck and Pip and so 
on. But we can regard the achievement in terms of the materials of 
narrative. From this viewpoint, it may be argued that the success of 
Moby-Dick and the clarity of its anger are due to Melville's peculiar, 
yet skilful, exploitation of the legacy of European literature and 
"the tradition" which that literature has made manifest. 

The legacy was the greatest of Melville's resources as, in his own 
way and according to his own needs, he gradually came into possession 
of it. The anger in Moby-Dick becomes resonant in the tension it cre- 
ates with the legacy and the tradition. And, conversely, it is the tradi- 
tion which in the choral voice of Ishmael and for what it is worth 
within the ironic frame of the novel transvaluates the values implicit 
in the anger. 


For the author of Moby-Dick, the central strain in the European 
tradition was tragic. The tragic sensibility defined in the long quota- 
tion from the "Try-Works" is attributed to books as well as to men: 
"That mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mor- 
tal man cannot be true not true or undeveloped. With books the 
same." There, plainly enough, is an antihopeful judgment, and almost 
the reverse of it can be read on many pages of Emerson and Thoreau. 
But there is a point beyond that, which has to do with the creative 
process itself; and we should recall the actual experience out of which 
Ishmael's meditation rises, for the enterprise of trying-out was an 
explicit trope for Melville of the act of creativity. He wrote Dana, 
while at work on Moby-Dick, that the novel would be "a strange sort 
of book . . . blubber is blubber you know; though you might get oil 
out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple-tree." 
And since trying-out was associated in the story with so hellish a scene 
and nightmarish an experience, it is hard to resist the inference that 
creativity for Melville was closely, dangerously, associated with the 
monstrous vision of evil. You have to go through hell, he suggests, 
either to get the oil or to write the book. 


The American Adam 

Melville, that is to say, belongs to the company of gifted romantics 
from Blake and Baudelaire to Thomas Mann, who have supposed that 
art is somehow the flower of evil and that the power through which 
the shaping imagination is raised to greatness may also be a power 
which destroys the artist; for it is the strength derived from the 
knowledge of evil not the detached study, but perhaps a very de- 
scent into the abyss. At some stage or other, Melville felt, art had to 
keep an appointment with wickedness. He believed with Hawthorne 
that, in order to achieve moral maturity, the individual had to engage 
evil and suffer the consequences; and he added the conviction that, 
in order to compose a mature work of literature, the artist had to 
enter without flinching into the "spheres of fright." For Melville, the 
two experiences happened not to be separable. 

But how, having looked into the fire, was the artist to articulate his 
vision of evil in language? Still another clue is provided by the "Try- 
Works." It can scarcely be a coincidence that, after the slices of 
blubber (the source of oil) have been pointedly referred to as "Bible 
leaves/' the insight gained from the spectacle is conveyed by Ishmael 
in a cluster of biblical references. The "Bible leaves" are passed 
through the furnaces, and oil is the result; similarly, Melville hints, 
the formed and incrusted language of the past must be "tried-out" in 
the transforming heat of the imagination, and the result is the shaped 
perception which can light up the work of art. 

The transforming process was crucial, for Melville never simply 
echoed the words of the great books of the past; he subjected them to 
tremendous pressure and forced them to yield remarkable new revela- 
tions. His characterizing "relation to tradition" was extremely am- 
biguous: it was no more the willing enslavement exemplified by the 
nostalgic than it was the blithe patriotic indifference manifested by 
the hopeful. I take his reading and his treatment of the Odyssey of 
Homer as a major illustration of Melville's "trying-out of a tradi- 
tional poem. 

Melville's Homer, like Keats's, was the Homer of George Chap- 
man. He acquired the Chapman translations in 1858 and preferred 
them at once to the translations by Pope, which he probably read 
(and read carefully) as early as 1848. 6 What impresses us at once as 

5. Cf. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., "Melville's Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned 
and Borrowed," Harvard Library Bulletin, Vol. Ill, No. 2 (spring, 1949), pp. 268 ff. I 
quote from a letter Mr. Sealts kindly wrote to me, February 21, 1949: "On 19 March 
1848 HM was charged with c l Classical Library, 37 v. 12.23.' . . . Pope's Homer consti- 
tutes three of the volumes." Melville purchased the complete works of Pope at some 
time after 1856. Mr. Sealts concludes: "He may have known [Pope's Homer] before 


Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

we follow his check-marks, underlinings, and marginal comments 
through the poems is this: that Melville was a creative reader; he was 
the poet as reader who became the reader as poet. His markings, rare- 
ly casual or isolated, fall usually upon essential threads and force the 
poems to yield the figure within them. But it is Melville's figure, and 
not always the figure we are accustomed to discover ourselves. 

His responsive reader's effect upon the Iliad is, to be sure, less con- 
spicuous than its effect upon the Odyssey. The Iliad, under Melville's 
inspection, emerges as the somber portrait of a world at war, of sor- 
rowing men caught up in vast forces and moving without hope to the 
violent death which awaits them, under the rule of implacable divini- 
ties. This is perhaps the Iliad we too are disposed to see; though it was 
not the Iliad of Melville's contemporary, Emerson, whose hopeful 
reading showed him only the "firm and cheerful temper" of a Homer 
who lay in the sunshine. But Melville read the Odyssey on a more 
symbolic level; his markings lead it to take the form of a tragic 5/7- 
dungsroman, with the relation between the characters and the se- 
quence of events standing for growth of insight into the heart of reali- 
ty. There is evidence of Melville's immense enjoyment of the adven- 
tures themselves; but he was primarily interested in meaning. 

The meaning Melville found borrows force from the unusual em- 
phasis his markings laid upon the griefs and hardships of Odysseus 
and the generalizations about the evil lot of mankind, to the point 
where a rich and spacious poem looks surprisingly gloomier than we 
remembered it. Melville seized upon the recurring descriptions of 
Odysseus and his dwindling crew sailing on, stricken at heart after 
some frightful encounter; and he made much of the hero's artful 
lament to Nausicaa that he was the victim of "a cruel habit of calami- 
ty" (vi, 257). He marked the disclaimer of Telemachus : 

Not by any means 

If Hope should prompt me or blind confidence 
(The God of fools) or ever deity 
Should will it, for 'tis past my destiny. 

[iii. 309 Melville's italics.] 

And the reaction of Telemachus to the dishonor shown his father: 

Never more let any sceptre-bearing man 
Benevolent, or mild, or human be, 
Nor in his mind form acts of piety, 
But ever feed on blood [ii. 348]. 

Moby ^Dick or even as early as his days at the Albany Academy, though that last is 
pure speculation. He almost bought a Chapman's Homer in London" in 1849. 

The American Adam 

The gods are no more benevolent than they had been in Melville's 
Iliad. There they had comprised a remote and hostile race, indifferent 
to man and interfering in his affairs only to blast his tenuous hopes; 
here Melville obtrudes Nestor's observation that "I know God studied 
misery to hurl against us" (iii). By focusing attention on these lines 
and many more like them, Melville forced the Odyssey to move per- 
ceptibly, to shift and re-form; he exposed within it a vision of terror 
and evil which casts a deep shadow over the beauty and steady assur- 
ance the poem could otherwise be seen to reflect. 

That vision is the frame for the educational process Melville traces 
for us. The process begins with the departure of Telemachus for sandy 
Pylos and the admonitions of his nurse and his mother, both of which 
ire strongly checked: 

It fits not you so young 
To suffer so much by the aged seas 
And err in such a wayless wilderness [ii. 545]. 

Why left my son his mother? Why refused 
His wit the solid shore to try the seas 
And put in ships the trust of his distress 
That are at sea to man unbridled horse, 
And run past rule? [iv. 492.] 

The echoes of Redburn and of Melville's personal life and relation to 
his mother are clear. Going to sea, both in deed and in symbol, was 
always Melville's way of fronting what Thoreau called "the essential 
facts of life"; and what must be stressed is that the venture was so 
much the more harrowing for Melville because malice and evil were 
central among the facts to be fronted. As he read on in the Odyssey, 
Melville ran a line alongside Proteus' warning to Menelaus, indicative 
of the dangerous nature of the venture: 


To ask so far. It fits not to be 
So cunning in thine own calamity. 
Nor seek to learn what learned thou shouldst forget. 
Men's knowledges have proper limits set 
And should not prease into the mind of God [iv. 657]. 

Melville's conviction about the peril did not prevent his own heroes 
from making the plunge nevertheless and "preasing" with all their 
might into the mind of God: into whatever it was which lay behind 
the appearances of things; and so they all "suffered so much by the 
aged seas." It is with the suffering and the lies and the silence of the 


Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

much-buffeted Odysseus that Melville's peticilings of the Odyssey 
come to an end. 

Having noticed Homer's observation (vi. 198) that "the hard pass 
[Odysseus] had at sea stuck by him," and, having digested the obvious 
fabrications with which Odysseus regaled the court of Antinous, Mel- 
ville greeted the wanderer's decision, upon arriving at last in Ithaca, 
with one of his heaviest markings, three emphatic lines in the margin: 

He bestowed 

A veil on truth; for evermore did wind 
About his bosom a most crafty mind [xiii. 370]. 

That scene, in which the slippery explanations of Odysseus are affec- 
tionately shown up by Athena, can be read as high comedy. If Mel- 
ville did not read it so, and if this moment is one of the last he would 
underscore in the poem, it was not only because he felt as Lear's Fool 
felt (in a passage he checked elsewhere) that "Truth's a dog must to 
kennel." To suppose so would be to remember the markings while for- 
getting the poem. And I want to suggest that the markings and the 
poem together make a curious tension which is representative both of 
Melville's relation to tradition and of the operation of that relation in 
the best of his fiction. 

Melville had perhaps the most strenuous doubts of his generation 
about the possibility of uttering the truth, and in his later years he 
was greatly taken by Arnold's allusion to the "power and beauty in 
the well-kept secret of one's self and one's thoughts." Here we find 
him, perhaps, attributing such beauty to the secretive Odysseus in 
Ithaca. But these doubts were embraced by a larger doubt which had 
to do with the nature of the truth to be uttered; and Melville was in- 
creasingly sure that truth was double that it was dialectical and con- 
tained, so far as any poet could utter it, in a tension. In his reading of 
the Odyssey, Melville inserted a tension into the poem: the tension 
between his own tragic and truncated design the departure, the jour- 
ney of inquiry, the suffering, the secretiveness and the grand pattern 
which the poem nonetheless maintains of homecoming, reunion, and 
resounding victory. 

Melville's reading reinforces the sense we have of how any formal 
and formulated myth functions in Moby-Dick and afterward. What I 
have said about the Odyssey myth can be matched by his response to 
the Christian myth (if that is the right phrase for it), or to the trage- 
dies of Aeschylus or Shakespeare. Bits and pieces or the whole of these 
myths are introduced into the narrative. But they are not precisely the 
model echoed in the central action, re-enacted by the main event. 

The American Adam 

They are the known elements by a sort of bold breaching of which the 
incident or the character or the phrase or the whole action must be 
understood. Yet the mythic elements are not negated either. They 
serve to comment contrapuntally on the action and the hero, which, 
of course, comment in turn upon them: and this is how the figures on 
both sides become transfigured. 

The process is not always radiant in Melville, for the traditional 
materials appear raggedly, they are lumpy and not altogether digest- 
ed; there is hardly a doctrinaire theory behind their treatment. A 
much clearer example in recent fiction is the functioning of The Divine 
Comedy in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. When, for instance, 
Hans Castorp's second "guide," Naphta, challenges the young man's 
first "guide," Settembrini, to a duel and then kills himself, we are 
meant to hear the almost endless discordant vibrations set up by the 
contrast between this event and the relation, in the Comedy > of Dante's 
guides Virgil (whom Settembrini cherishes and resembles) and Bea- 
trice (like Naphta, a theologian). The relation between Virgil and Bea- 
trice is perfectly harmonious; it enacts, indeed, the process toward 
perfection; it dramatizes the formula of St. Thomas that grace does 
not destroy nature but perfects it. The harmonious hum of the Comedy 
behind the pistol-shots of The Magic Mountain establishes the tension : 
a tension of symbolic relationships, which is a tension of worlds; and 
the world of Mann's novel announces itself in its ironic contrast to 

Nothing so crafty or so conscious may be found in the fiction of Mel- 
ville; yet the achievement is comparable. And even the lumpiness of 
the traditional elements included is significant: significant, anyhow, 
that his relation to the tradition was American. For the American 
writer has never (if he is honest and American) been able to pretend 
an authentic initial communion with the European past; and especial- 
ly not if he begins, as Melville did, imbued with the antitraditional 
principles of the party of Hope. He can know a great deal, even every- 
thing, about that past; he can go after it, which is just the demonstra- 
tion that he is not in communion with it. And if he establishes a com- 
munion, it is one of a quite different order from that which most Euro- 
pean writers until 1939, at least possessed as their birthright. The 
American kind of communion will usually be a sort of tussle, and the 
best of our writers (like Melville) can convert the tussle into drama. 
At the same time, since the American writer is outside the organic 
world of European literature to start with, there is no limit to how 
much of the world he can draw upon. He has the Protestant's con- 


Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

tempt for the long line of commentary and influence; he can go directly 
to the source and find it anywhere. Nothing is his by right; and so 
nothing constrains him; and nothing, ultimately, is denied him. Such 
has been and such must continue to be the actual relation between the 
American writer and the European tradition: a queer and vigilant re- 
lation, at once hospitable and hostile, at once unlimited and uneasy. 3 


A comparison between the description of Jackson in Redburn and 
our first glimpse of Ahab in Moby-Dick may further illustrate Mel- 
ville's practice. Here is Jackson: "Nothing was left of this Jackson but 
the foul lees and dregs of a man; he was thin as a shadow; nothing but 
skin and bones; and sometimes used to complain that it hurt him to 
sit on the hard chests." A man who could write a sentence like that 
might not be thought to need any further resources. There had been 
no sentence in previous American fiction to match its deceptive ca- 
dence, its linking of perfectly common language with the shock of al- 
most literally felt visual detail. These words stick to their subject. 
But then here is Ahab: 

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over- 
runningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one 
particle from their compacted aged robustness. . . . His bone-leg steadied in 
that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood 
erect, looking straight out beyond the ship's ever-pitching prow. There was an 
infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the 
fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor 
did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and 
expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful consciousness, of 
being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken 
Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal 
overbearing dignity of some mighty woe. 

The visual image is not less sharp; but it is incomparably larger, in- 
deed it is almost outsize and chiefly because Ahab is animated within 
a density of suggestive and echoing language that carries us into the 
outsize world of heroic legend, without wholly detaching us from the 
hard wood of the quarter-deck. But the substance of that heroic di- 
mension is a fusion of violently contradictory "visions" the vision 
vitalized by anger and vengeance and pride and wilfulness, on the one 

6. Cf. the discussion of "communion" in chap. 9, and especially in the closing pages 
of that chapter. "Communion" or the attempt to achieve it is, I suggest there, a 
link between the various members of what I call "the third party": the elder James, 
Bushnell, Hawthorne, Melville, Parkman, etc. Cf. also the mention on p. 160 of the 
American loss of "communion with history." 

I I45l 

The American Adam 

hand, and the vision of Christian-cum-Greek tragic acceptance, on the 

It is in the interplay, the so to speak open-ended dialectic, of the 
visions that Melville's "relation to tradition" is to be found and where 
his expanded resources reveal themselves. Ahab's heroic pride, his 
wilfulness, his defiance of God and his destruction of the world make 
sense within our imaginative recollection (constantly prodded 
throughout the novel) of Christian heroism meekness, submission, 
obedience, and the salvation of mankind. Annihilation at sea makes 
sense within our stimulated recollection of the homecoming myth, the 
Odyssey. Moby-Dick 's sustained mood of impending disaster sharpens 
itself against the Homeric echo of impending triumph. The cosmic 
anger of Ahab at betrayal, by God, by the father, is correlative to 
Melville's anger at the devastating betrayal by experience of the 
promises of hope. All this rage assumes its full dimension because it is 
established in opposition to the traditionally comprehensive accept- 
ance voiced by Father Mapple and by Ishmael. 

Moby-Dick is an elaborate pattern of countercommentaries, the 
supreme instance of the dialectical novel a novel of tension without 
resolution. Ishmael's meditation, which transfigures the anger and 
sees beyond the sickness and the evil, is only one major voice in the 
dramatic conversation; and not until Billy Budd does this voice be- 
come transcendent and victorious. In Moby-Dick, Melville adopted a 
unique and off-beat traditionalism a steadily ambiguous re-rendering 
of the old forms and fables once unequivocally rejected by the hopeful 
in order to recount the total blasting of the vision of innocence. He 
went beyond a spurious artistic originality to give narrative birth to 
the conflict with evil: that evil against which a spurious and illusory 
innocence must shatter itself. In doing so, he not only achieved a 
sounder originality but moved a great step toward perceiving a more 
durable innocence. In Pierre, the following year, Melville faltered and 
went back once more over the old dreary ground of disillusion; but in 
Billy Buddy he was to come home. 


The new Adam ... is the Lord from heaven [Si. PAUL, I Cor. 45-47]. 

At least one of Melville's critics has found Homer's Odyssey a broad 
metaphor useful not only for gauging Melville's novels but also for 
describing his life. Toward the end of that life, W. H. Auden says in 
his poem "Herman Melville": 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

he sailed into an extraordinary mildness, 
And anchored in his home and reached his wife 
And rode within the harbour of her hand, 
And went across each morning to an office 
As though his occupation were another island. 

Goodness existed: that was the new knowledge 

His terror had to blow itself quite out 

To let him see it; but it was the gale had blown him 

Past the Cape Horn of sensible success 

Which cries: "This rock is Eden. Shipwreck here." 

Mr. Auden's poem, which outlines Melville's life perhaps a shade too 
tidily by means of the Homeric allusions, has to do with the final 
tranquillity and the firm concluding Christian acquiescence out of 
which according to Mr. Auden Melville composed Billy Budd. 

. . . now he cried in exultation and surrender 
"The Godhead is broken like bread. We are the pieces." 
And sat down at his desk and wrote a story. 

Melville's cry about "the Godhead" was in fact uttered in 1851, in 
the letter responding to Hawthorne's praise of Moby-Dick, some forty 
years before Melville sat down at his desk in New York and wrote 
Billy's story. But Lilly Budd is, of course, unmistakably the product 
of aged serenity; its author has unmistakably got beyond his anger or 
discovered the key to it; and it would be pointless to deny that it is a 
testament of acceptance, as Mr. Watson has said, or a "Nunc Dimit- 
tis," as Mr. Arvin proposes. It is woeful, but wisely, no longer madly. 
Its hero is sacrificially hanged at sea, but its author has come home, 
like Odysseus. 

In Melville's last work, the New World's representative hero and 
his representative adventure receive a kind of sanctification. Mr. R. P. 
Blackmur has said of the last three novels of Henry James that they 
approach the condition of poetry, which Mr. Blackmur explains as the 
exemplification in language of the soul in action "the inner life of the 
soul at the height of its struggle, for good or evil, with the outer world 
which it must deny, or renounce, or accept." This, precisely, is what 
Billy Budd asks us to say about it; Billy Budd helps us to see that the 
action so described is one grounded in the pressures and counterpres- 
sures not of any world but of the New World. It is the action of the 
soul in general as shaped under a New World perspective. Melville's 
achievement was double: he brought myth into contemporary life, and 
he elevated that life into myth at once transcending and reaffirming 
the sense of life indicated by the party of Hope. 


The American Adam 

Compare, for example, the personality and the career of the Hand- 
some Sailor with the analysis of historic American Adamism offered 
by Horace Bushnell in 1858. Billy is innocence personified "To be 
nothing more than innocent!" Claggart exclaims, in malice and tears. 
He can neither read nor write, though he can sing like an angel. He 
springs from nowhere; he returns a cheerful "No, sir/' to the officer's 
question, "Do you know anything about your beginning?" "His en- 
tire family was practically invested in himself." He fulfils every hope- 
ful requirement; no historic process or influence intrudes between him 
and the very dawn of time; his defining qualities seem to be "excep- 
tionally transmitted from a period prior to Cain's city and citified 

So it can be said of him that he "was little more than an upright 
barbarian, much such as Adam presumably might have been ere the 
urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company," and that "in the 
nude [he] might have posed for a statue of Adam before the Fall." 
This is just the personality that Bushnell saw his culture fostering and 
which he deplored. Even Billy's stammer and his illiteracy are integral 
to the portrait: they are the evidence of that "condition privative," 
they constitute that "necessary defect of knowledge and consequent 
weakness" which Bushnell assigned to any "free person or ... power 
considered as having just begun to be." The defect and the weakness, 
under Claggart's goading, precipitate the disaster; and Billy falls, as 
the mythological Adam had fallen, and as Bushnell foresaw that any 
Adamic American would fall. The myth enters into the life and re- 
enacts itself: but not at the expense of the life. Bushnell invoked the 
myth in order to chastise the tendencies of life in his day. But if Mel- 
ville celebrates the fall, he also celebrates the one who fell; and the 
qualities and attitudes which insure the tragedy are reaffirmed in their 
indestructible worth even in the moment of defeat. Melville exposed 
anew the danger of innocence and its inevitable tragedy; but in the 
tragedy he rediscovered a heightened value in the innocence. 

Melville's achievement, as in Moby-Dick, was an artistic achieve- 
ment, and it may be measured by the failure of Pierre, more than three 
decades earlier. For the action fumbled with in Pierre is essentially the 
same as that of Billy Budd. From the moment on the novel's first page 
when we are introduced to a "green and golden World" and see young 
Pierre on a "morning in June . . . issuing from the embowr'd . . . 
home of his fathers . . . dewily refreshed and spiritualized by sleep," 
we know where we are and what and whom we have to deal with. The 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

very language contains strong verbal echoes of Whitman's most ex- 
plicit Adamic verse: 

As Adam, early in the morning, 

Walking forth from the bower refresh *d with sleep. . . . 

The story of Pierre Glendinning consists in the explosion of what 
Dr. Murray has called "this myth of paradise" an explosion result- 
ing from an unpreparedness for the subsequent myth of the Fall; and 
in the explosion both the book and its hero are blown to pieces. It is 
not the hero who is at fault; he is not obliged to be prepared, his con- 
dition forbids it. But we have the impression that the hero's inventor 
was unprepared: he is not less shocked than Pierre when he sees what 
he says. The symbolic distance accomplished in Moby-Dick narrows 
fatally in Pierre; and if ever there was a case of symbolic suicide in 
literature, it is Melville's in the indiscriminate destruction in the con- 
cluding pages of Pierre. The myth which had been an ambiguous 
source of strength in Moby-Dick has now overwhelmed the life. And 
so in C/are/, Melville's next extensive piece of writing, we are not sur- 
prised to find an imagination winding its way through a maze of waste- 
land imagery, quite explicitly lamenting the bewildering and painful 
loss of Eden. 

The recovery in Billy Budd is astonishing. The entire story moves 
firmly in the direction of a transcendent cheerfulness: transcendent, 
and so neither bumptious nor noisy; a serene and radiant gladness. 
The climax is prepared with considerable artistry by a series of devices 
which, though handled somewhat stiffly by a rusty creative talent, do 
their work nonetheless. The intent of all of them is to bring into being 
and to identify the hero and his role and then to institute the magical 
process of transfiguration. Billy appears as another Adam: thrust (like 
Redburn and Pierre) into a world for which his purity altogether un- 
fits him. His one ally, the Danish sailor who is the prophetic figure 
in the story, eyes Billy with "an expression of speculative query as to 
what might eventually befall a nature like that, dropped into a world 
not without some mantraps and against whose subtleties simple cour- 
age lacking experience and address and without any touch of defensive 
ugliness is of little avail; and where such innocence as man is capable 
of does yet in a moral emergency not always sharpen the faculties or 
enlighten the will." 7 

7. Melville's Billy Budd, p. 177. Mr. Freeman, the editor, observes in a footnote 
that Melville wrote "an expression of speculative foresight" then changed the final 
word to "query." It is instructive to watch, with Mr. Freeman's scholarly aid, as Mel- 
ville subdues his more explicitly ritualistic language to the more realistic and dramatic. 

The American Adam 

The Dansker carries the burden of awareness within the novella 
awareness that "the matter of Adam" is being tested again; and the 
atmosphere grows thick with echoes of Paradise Lost. But all the time, 
other energies are linguistically at work. Melville sets swirling around 
his hero other allusions which relate Billy by inference to other beings: 
splendid animals, Catholic priests, royalty, the gods Apollo, Her- 
cules, Hyperion. It is the destiny of these figures to suffer transfigura- 
tion, to die into their sacrificial counterparts the sacrificial bull, the 
"condemned Vestal priestesses," the slain monarch, and the dying 
god. This is the process by which Adam changes into the "new Adam" 
of St. Paul "the Lord from heaven." The value of the American 
Adam is thereby, at last, transvalued. 

The process is both complicated and enhanced by the ironically 
entitled "digression" on Lord Nelson. The story of the common sailor 
is suddenly stretched into great drama by a glimpse of the "heroic 
personality" of "the greatest sailor since the world began." Nelson, 
too, is killed at sea; and Melville anticipates the quality of Billy's 
death by investing Nelson, at the moment of his "most glorious 
death," with "a priestly motive," which led him to adorn himself as 
"for the altar and the sacrifice." The classical drama of the heroic 
nobleman points up the little adventure of the stammering and illit- 
erate orphan; and Melville gets back to that adventure by remarking 
that profoundest passion does not need "a palatial stage" but may be 
enacted "down among the groundlings." 

Accused by Claggart of mutiny and thereupon striking and killing 
his accuser, Billy Budd falls like Adam, tempted (through Eve) by the 
serpent; it is observed that the lifeless sergeant-at-arms resembles 
"a dead snake." In the court-martial and conviction of Billy which 
follow, the institutionalized world has its familiar way with the de- 
fenseless hero. But where the Hawthorne version came to its end in the 
imprisonment of Donatello, a new dimension of meaning and emotion 
is introduced in Billy Buddy and the story moves toward ecstasy. The 
sense of divine commandment is indicated in a linking of Billy with 
Isaac; and the ship's deck where Billy lies handcuffed and at peace 
through the vigil of his death is associated with a cathedral. The 
pitch of exaltation is reached at the instant of the hanging. 

"The last signal . . . was given. At the same moment it chanced 
that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East, was shot through with 
a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, 
and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged masses of up- 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

turned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the 

After such a sentence, which is wholly saved from sentimentality 
by the breath-taking detail of the "wedged masses," it must be re- 
gretted that Melville thought it necessary to tell us that, for the sailors 
who witness the sacrificial death, a chip of the spar from which Billy 
was hanged "was as a piece of the Cross." It is enough that Captain 
Vere, dying himself a little time later, murmurs "Billy Budd, Billy 
Budd" at the last in agony of spirit, but also in a kind of prayer. And 
it is enough that the manner of Billy's death transforms the sailors' 
mutinous anger into acceptance and understanding and that, for 
them, Billy is the subject of song and fable thereafter. 

Billy is the type of scapegoat hero, by whose sacrifice the sins of his 
world are taken away: in this case, the world of the H.M.S. "Indomi- 
table" and the British navy, a world threatened by a mutiny which 
could destroy it. Melville brought to bear upon such a hero and his 
traditional fate an imagination of mythic capabilities: I mean an 
imagination able to detect the intersection of divine, supernatural 
power and human experience; an imagination which could suggest the 
theology of life without betraying the limits of literature. Hawthorne, 
for example, had only very faint traces of such an imagination; his 
fiction never (unless in The Scarlet Letter) rose beyond the unequivo- 
cally humanistic level of insight and expression. He realized that the 
"pristine virtues" would inevitably encompass their possessor's de- 
struction; and for him the proper denouement was the acquisition 
through suffering of different and tougher virtues. His version of the 
fortunate fall found the fortune in the faller; and it suggested an ac- 
ceptance of the world and its authority. In the doctrine offetix culpa, 
the Fall was regarded as fortunate not because of its effect upon Adam 
the sinner but because of its effect upon God the redeemer; and the 
world was to be transformed thereafter. Melville's achievement was 
to recover the higher plane of insight, without intruding God on a 
machine: by making the culprit himself the redeemer. 

It is this, I suggest, which accounts for something that might other- 
wise bother us in the novella: the apparent absence of impressive 
change not in the world but in the character of Billy Budd. We ex- 
pect our tragic heroes to change and to reveal (like Donatello) a dimen- 
sionally increased understanding of man's ways or of God's ways to 
man. Billy is as innocent, as guileless, as trusting, as loving, when he 
hangs from the yardarm as when he is taken off the "Rights of Man." 
What seems like failure, in this respect and on Melville's part, is ex- 

The American Adam 

actly the heart of the accomplishment. For the change effected in the 
story has to do with the reader, as representative of the onlooking 
world: with the perception forced on him of the indestructible and in 
some sense the absolute value of "the pristine virtues/* The percep- 
tion is aroused by exposing the Christlike nature of innocence and 
love, which is to raise those qualities to a higher power to their 
highest power. Humanly speaking, those qualities are fatal; but they 
alone can save the world. 

So, in Billy Budd, Melville's own cycle of experience and commit- 
ment, which began with the hopeful dawn and "the glorious, glad, 
golden sun," returns again to the dawn but a dawn transfigured, 
"seen in mystical vision/' Melville salvaged the legend of hope both 
for life and for literature: by repudiating it in order to restore it in an 
apotheosis of its hero. There will be salvation yet, the story hints, from 
that treacherous dream. 


Melville had reason, then, to "bless" the story of "the Good Being 
hung and gone to glory": Billy's story was perfectly designed not only 
to carry that archetypal action with which the American legend-life 
had so long been concerned, but to transform the archetypal agent 
from a mere helpless innocent into a figure of redemption, a Good Be- 
ing. But the story of that story did not, of course, end with Billy Budd; 
and I shall suggest in my Epilogue that it has, happily, not ended yet. 
"The matter of Adam," however rearranged or even inverted, con- 
tinues to supply the motivating force in the composition of our liveliest 
and most durable fiction. I suspect, indeed, that the future of Ameri- 
can fiction depends in some real part upon the durability of the image 
of the hero as Adam. 

Within that narrow world where literary example is genuinely influ- 
ential, the durability of the Adamic narrative image owes as much to 
the achievement of Henry James as to that of Melville and Haw- 
thorne. Billy Budd was finished in 1890 and was not discovered and 
published until 1924; but, for all that, it was a story of the pre-Civil 
War generation, and W. H. Auden is imaginatively (if not historically) 
correct to relate it to the Melville of 1851. More than a decade before 
Melville began on his last work, Henry James was introducing the 
first of the very long series of innocent and metaphorically newborn 
heroes and heroines. Those qualities, actualized by James with every 
conceivable variety of ethical weight, defined his protagonists in novel 
after novel. An exhaustive list of James's innocents would approach a 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

catalogue of his major writings in fiction: Christopher Newman in The 
American; Daisy Miller; Isabel Archer; Hyacinth Robinson in The 
Princess Casamassima; Miles and Flora in The Turn of the Screw; 
Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors; Milly Theale in The Wings of 
the Dove; Maggie and Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl; Ralph Pendril 
in the unfinished Sense of the Past. These are only among the more 
prominent and memorable names on the list. 

The dialectic of innocence and experience usually, but not always, 
dramatized as the American and Europe was so obsessive and con- 
stant a theme for Henry James that one is tempted to say it was not, 
finally, a theme at all: but rather the special and extraordinarily 
sensitive instrument by which James gauged the moral weather of the 
life he was imitating. It was part of his technique as well as his con- 
tent. An account of "innocence" in the fiction of Henry James, there- 
fore, would be much the same as a book about James's fiction in 
general; it would have to be a book at least as long as this one. 

But although James can be rewardingly examined in many differ- 
ent perspectives, one of the surest approaches to his work is that of the 
Adamic mythology I have been tracing. He saw himself in relation to 
French, Russian, and English novelists; but the form which life as- 
sumed in James's fiction reflected the peculiar American rhythm of 
the Adamic experience: the birth of the innocent, the foray into the 
unknown world, the collision with that world, "the fortunate fall," the 
wisdom and the maturity which suffering produced. The longer James 
lived abroad, the closer he moved toward a classic representation of 
the native anecdote. His initial treatment was realistic, in the Gallic 
manner; but his last novels shared the romantic, melodramatic, and 
mythic orientations of Cooper and Hawthorne and Melville. In The 
Portrait of a Lady, James took care to identify the social, domestic, 
and economic factors which led to Isabel Archer's entrance into the 
damaging world. In The Wings of the Dove, realities lie in the back- 
ground; in the foreground, James enacts a singular combination of 
fairy tale and horror story. And the more James rehearsed the story, 
the more ambiguity he introduced into it. The later fiction reached 
sustained heights of narrative equivocation, and it is no longer pos- 
sible to say that innocence is being either celebrated or exposed in its 
weakness; our allegiance is played with too cunningly, the wheel re- 
volves too swiftly. 

The final turn occurs in The Golden Bowl. In James's last com- 
pleted novel, as in those of Hawthorne and Melville, the Adamic 
metaphor becomes explicit and central. Familiar qualities reverberate 

1 153 1 

The American Adam 

in the protagonist's name: Adam Verver, a linking of the first member 
of the human race with a two-syllable suggestion of greenness or fresh- 
ness. But those familiar elements have taken on a potency not much 
less than sinister (something foreshadowed in the demonic innocents 
of The Turn of the Screw). The Prince and Charlotte Stance, represent- 
atives of "the world/' are notably foreshortened; it is their destiny 
to be brought to heel, even crippled where formerly the worldly 
Osmond had tamed the innocence of Isabel Archer. The Golden Bowl is 
a startling inversion of the Adamic tradition; it is the world, this time, 
which is struck down by aggressive innocence. For James saw very 
deeply and he was the first American writer to do so that innocence 
could be cruel as well as vulnerable; that the condition prior to con- 
science might have insidious undertones of the amoral as well as the 
beguiling naivete of the premoral. In the mythology which he inherit- 
ed, as an American artist, James detected paradoxes and tensions only 
hinted at by his American master, Hawthorne, and virtually unsus- 
pected even by the most skeptical of Hawthorne's contemporaries. 

There should be no doubt, however, that the Adamic mythology 
was James's first and most important inheritance from his own cul- 
ture. He got some of it from Hawthorne; and what he got he was able 
to organize and contemplate in his little book on Hawthorne in 1879. 
He must have got some of it, too, from his father, whose best state- 
ment of the philosophical drama of individual experience Society the 
Redeemed Form of Man was likewise published in 1879. But he got 
most of it, one is forced to conclude, where everyone else seemed to be 
getting it: in the impalpable atmosphere of the time. The myth of the 
American Adam was simply a formula for the way life felt to alert and 
sensitive Americans during the second and third quarters of the nine- 
teenth century; it could hardly have been missed by the younger 
Henry James. 

It has been argued by Professor Quentin Anderson that the novels 
of Henry James, especially the final trio, comprised a very close work- 
ing-out in narrative terms of the Swedenborg-directed philosophy of 
his father. 8 The parallels are suggestively close, as I myself have at- 
tempted to show. But the father's philosophy, as I have also suggest- 
ed, was itself a reflection of the intellectual activity and the cluster of 

8. In Scrutiny^ September and December, 1947; and in Kenyon Review, autumn, 
1946. Cf. a rebuttal by F. R. Leavis in The Common Pursuit (New York, 1952) and 
an elaboration by Francis Fergusson in Sewanee Review, winter, 1955. Professor Ander- 
son has completed a full-length treatment of his subject the relation between the 
two Henry Jameses in a forthcoming book, appropriately titled The American Henry 

1 154! 

Melville: The Apotheosis of Adam 

moral attitudes of his generation. It was the elder James's way of 
participating in the cultural dialogue he heard going on around him; 
like Hawthorne, whom he loved, and like Horace Bushnell, whom he 
never knew at all, James tried to explain to his hopeful contemporaries 
the need and the value of sounding the "profoundest tragic depths." 
But his explanation did not amount to a system; it was a sort of huge 
and almost inarticulate growl of the spirit. His son William, trained 
in logic and metaphysics, had difficulty in piecing it together; it is 
hard to imagine the younger Henry even trying to. The phrase has be- 
come stale through repetition, but Eliot's remark still has truth in it: 
that Henry James (the son) had a mind so fine that no idea could 
violate it. 

What should be added is that James had an imagination so vigorous 
that no idea could fail to be violated by it. James's fiction was a series 
of expert violations of the Adamic idea. And that idea with all its 
ramifications was what everything in his American background in- 
cluding the table talk of his father connived to give him. 

The Golden Powl, James's most thorough rendering and most re- 
markable transformation of the American story, achieved a kind of 
ultimacy in the direction it pursued. But there are other directions, 
and they are being pursued today. I come back to that in the Epilogue. 
Meanwhile, I move to areas other than fiction: to history and theolo- 
gy, where the themes which gave rise to the American genre of fiction 
were providing comparable challenges to inquiry and stimuli to in- 
sight. To hear those echoes and interpret them is to understand how 
oddly homogeneous was the cultural conversation of the day. The 
atmosphere was strange, but it was distributed evenly. 


The Past and the Perfect 

A people without history 

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern 
Of timeless moments. 

T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding 


The Function of History 
Bancroft and Parkman 

Of all pursuits that require analysis, history . . . stands 


THE age of hope surprised even itself by a lively and increasing 
curiosity about the historical past it had so roundly repudiated. 
When Emerson suggested, in an essay called History, that some in- 
struction might, after all, be drawn from the study of former times and 
events, the idea was received uneasily (by the Democratic Review in 
1842) as "almost a paradox." "Probably no other civilised nation/ 1 it 
was observed, "has at any period ... so completely thrown off its al- 
legiance to the past as the American. The whole essay of our national 
life and legislation has been a prolonged protest against the dominion 
of antiquity in every form whatsoever." The protest continued in 
undiminished intensity; but, as the years went by, it became evident, 
as the Literary World in 1849 pointed out with considerable surprise, 
that "the movement on the part of American scholars and writers has 
of late been in a marked manner in the direction of history/' The 
forward-looking age was, indeed, a great age for the study and the 
writing of history; for the compiling of documents and records and 
the founding of historical societies to preserve them; and as against 
Tocqueville's assertion that Americans never kept records, it was pos- 
sible for one reviewer to grumble with reason that the opposite was 
almost alarmingly the case. 

This paradox the dedicated absorption with history at a moment 
when it was being claimed that a new history had just begun may be 
resolved by noticing some of the subjects which occupied the attention 
of the historians and, perhaps more important, the informing tone in 
which the historical materials were presented. In no other area of dis- 


The American Adam 

course was the interchange of ideas so distinct. It was a conversation 
(carried on by means of historical treatises) about the second of the 
two ideas which went into the moral profile of the American as a new 
Adam: about "newness" about the status of past time and the rela- 
tion of the past to the present. In this conversation, the chief speakers 
were Prescott, Bancroft, and Parkman. 


Chronologically and logically, one must begin with William Prescott 
(1796-1859), the author, among other works, of those two splendid 
historical narratives, The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru. 
Prescott, who was the very embodiment of learned nostalgia, under- 
stood the function of the historian to be the scrupulous setting-off of 
the past from the present; the investigation of the past in its intact, 
reassuring pastness; and the perception of it as remote, invulnerable, 
and (therefore) radiant with truth. It was his aim, he said in the Intro- 
duction to The Conquest of Mexico in 1843, "to surround [the reader] 
with the spirit of the times, and ... to make him ... a contemporary 
of the sixteenth century." The very "distance of the present age from 
the period of the narrative" bespoke the truth of his work and made 
that truth visible. 

Prescott was the most notable and impressive of those who re- 
sponded to the forward-looking enthusiasms of the age by looking 
backward with compensatory vigor. He detected and deplored the 
current habit of "innovations" in speech and in opinion, and he 
warned against the excesses of an overly "inventive population." He 
resented the ambition of the day to new-name the elements of the 
world, like Adam in the garden; and he managed, in opposition, to 
make himself and his reader the members of another, more settled 
century. In doing so, he illustrated the later insight of Nikolai Ber- 
dyaev in The Meaning of History: that historical research is apt to 
flourish not during periods when the human mind exercises itself in a 
deep, organic communion with actual, concrete history but precisely 
during periods when the mind has been jolted out of such communion, 
when it is sufficiently detached from the continuing flow of history to 
reflect self-watchfully upon it. The American mind had been so jolted 
at some time between the waning of the Colonial age and the second 
quarter of the nineteenth century; and it had, as a consequence, be- 
come aware of the temporal order and of distinctions within it of past 
and present. The pervasive "protest against the dominion of antiquity 
in every form whatsoever" quickly produced a consciousness of antiq- 


The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

uity as antiquity. As the present was cut away from the past, so the 
past appeared unexpectedly as an isolated, authentic object of inquiry; 
and persons made unhappy by the clamor of prophesying took to ex- 
amining the records. Lowell had urged upon his countrymen the su- 
premely hopeful formula: "Forget Europe wholly." Prescott came up 
with exactly the contrary advice. 

We should, perhaps, distinguish here between the nonhistorical and 
the antihistorical mentality; Prescott began in a reaction to the latter. 
The antihistorical mind expressed itself in imperious negatives; it an- 
nounced on all occasions its contempt for any idea which, as Haw- 
thorne's Coverdale put it in The Elithedale Romance ', "had not come 
into vogue since yesterday morning." And on deeper levels the anti- 
historical spirit wrestled with the facts of history in order to escape 
from the burden they had hitherto imposed. But to the nonhistorical 
view of Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman, no temporal distinctions 
were admitted, as none were sought. "What is near to the heart of this 
generation is fair and bright still," wrote Thoreau; all good men, good 
deeds, and good sayings exuded a simultaneous glow, when the acci- 
dents of their historical clothing had been removed. History dissolved 
under such a glance; under Prescott's it froze. 

The assault upon history corresponded to the noise of denial and 
protest that Emerson had reported hearing in other phases of the cul- 
ture. But while it produced, in contrast, the consecration of the past 
by a writer like Prescott, it also led to a new mode of historical writing, 
a studied demonstration in historical terms of the validity of the hope- 
ful legend, the legend of the second chance. More than anyone else, 
George Bancroft typified this second chapter in the recurring cultural 
story of the generation. 


George Bancroft of Massachusetts (1800-1891) was a robust and 
yet unstable figure, the most politically active among the hopeful 
party, a writer of gusto, and a man who managed just to miss great- 
ness in several fields. He studied under Hegel in Berlin and Heeren in 
Gottingen; 1 he was minister to London under Polk and to Berlin under 
Johnson and Grant; he was Secretary of the Navy for one year (1845- 
46) and founded the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He had a talent at 

1. Bancroft to his former teacher, Edward Everett, from Berlin, December, 1820: 
"I took a philosophical course with Hegel. But I thought it lost time to listen to his 
display of unintelligible words" (The Life and Letters of George Bancroft, ed. M. A. De 
Wolfe Howe [New York, 1908], 1, 92). 


The American Adam 

once for an almost Lincolnian political prescience and for self-seeking 
compromise. His diplomatic and political career does not really con- 
cern us here; but both the powers and the instability which that career 
revealed must be mentioned. It is as a historian that Bancroft comes 
into this story; but there is a sense in which his notion about history 
was a response to his feeling of instability in himself, in the world. 
For Bancroft turned to history as the body of knowledge which could 
make sense out of an experience characterized by incessant change. 
And, as shaped under his powers and as animated by his gusto, history 
became for Bancroft a myth which revealed the purpose behind the 
change: an explanation of the very essence of the New World. The 
New World became the crown, the key, and the consummation of a 
universal historical process. 

The chorus of denial and protest against nearly all inherited institu- 
tions, forms of thought, habits of mind, and paths of conduct created 
among all but the inveterately hopeful a feeling of almost cosmic 
unsettledness. Movement and change, dissolution and disappearance, 
seemed virtually to characterize reality. In essays and articles, in 
stories and poems which attempted to catch the life of the times, the 
imagery of flowing abounded, intermingled with imagery of burning, 
of storms and hurricanes, of high winds sweeping all before them. "It 
was impossible," Coverdale recalled, speaking of the community at 
Blithedale (the fictionalized Brook Farm of West Roxbury), "not to 
imbibe the idea that everything in nature and human existence was 
fluid or fast becoming so; that the crust of the earth in many places 
was broken, and its whole surface portentously upheaving." 

For those incapable of perceiving (as Emerson perceived) the few, 
simple, eternal principles of truth and goodness shining steadily 
through the chaotic surfaces of experiences, the facts of human history 
and the discipline of the historical method came to the rescue, restor- 
ing order and disclosing meaning. For human history, when enough 
was known of it, yielded up its governing law: the law of progress. In 
an essay in the Democratic Review, very possibly written by George 
Bancroft, the evidence of endless mutability was rehearsed, in a way 
to lead to the rhetorical questions and answers: "Is this, then, indeed a 
chaos? Is it no more than a lawless tumult? . . . Far from it. ... On 
all is written the great law of Progress. . . . The course of the whole 
race is onwards. Every age takes some step in advance of its predeces- 

In an oration before the New York Historical Society in 1854, 
Bancroft was more succinct, more assured. "Everything is in motion, 

The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

and for the better," he announced. "The last system of philosophy 
is always the best. . . . The last political state of the world likewise is 
ever more excellent than the old." Chaos was redeemed by progress. 
And progress was the lesson of history. It was a secular version of faith 
in search of reason : progress was the faith; history supplied the reason. 
So it was that Bancroft could lay it down confidently that "of all 
pursuits that require analysis, history . . . stands first." Among his- 
tory's competitors, philosophy was not equipped to follow motions; 
and the natural sciences knew nothing about the better. 

The kind of history which substantiated the progressive faith was 
brought over and adapted from various European speculators and 
called "universal history." These vast, metaphysical musings on the 
whole course of the human drama had stirred many European minds 
since the third quarter of the eighteenth century, as a response to the 
radical changes effected by the Revolution and its consequences. The 
response corresponded to that of St. Augustine, fourteen hundred 
years before, when in the light of comparable dislocations, he had 
sought for the historical substantiation of the Christian faith and had 
composed The City of God. In America in the 1840*8 and 1850's 
the charting of universal history became something like a fashion- 
able game; commentators in books and periodicals vied with one 
another in labeling and plotting the several grand stages of the human 
story the grandest, in all cases, being the present stage, which was 
also the final one. 

The distinction of George Bancroft's use of imported doctrine may 
be indicated in a comparison with Richard Hildreth, a contemporary 
and colleague, who, like Bancroft, was a former pupil of Edward 
Everett at Harvard. Hildreth (1807-65) bore a relation to Bancroft 
not unlike the relation of Dr. Holmes to Walt Whitman. Hildreth, 
that is, detected (like Holmes) a slow, uneven "rise" of the human 
society; and Bancroft testified (like Whitman) to a triumphant new 
beginning. Hildreth, a legalist and a Boston editor, was not impressed 
by claims of human or institutional perfectibility; he wasted little 
time in mulling over the operation of large principles; and he had a 
cold dislike of what he called "mystical ideas." But he agreed that the 
history of mankind did, for the studious, show a development toward 
the better: a better measured in terms of "the municipal spirit in 
other words of democracy." The subject was explored in Hildreth's 
Theory of Politics (1853), where in the course of explaining and com- 
mending the new discipline of universal history he contended that 
civilization had passed through a series of progressively superior 

The American Adam 

stages, distinguishable in terms of the focus of political power. One 
power structure had given way to the next: the priests to the nobles, 
the nobles to the absolute monarchs, they to the burghers and finally, 
in the American democracy, the burghers gave way, as the embodi- 
ments of power, to the workingmen of the entire society. 

So far, Richard Hildreth, a man who had more affinities with 
Jeremy Bentham (whose hard-headed theories he admired) than, say, 
with Emerson. But Bancroft, reflecting poetically on the course of his- 
tory, thought he found a difference not merely of degree but of kind in 
the American experience. Liberty, rather than power, was Bancroft's 
major term of analysis. In this respect, he followed his teacher, 
Everett, who had declared in 1828 that "history, as it has often been 
written, is the genealogy of princes. . . . But the history of Liberty . . . 
is the real history of man." Liberty and slavery played out their long 
dialectic in Bancroft's historical essays as the cities of God and of Man 
had done in the masterwork of St. Augustine. The American Revolu- 
tion was the true and long-prepared-for birth of freedom, the ultimate 
clue to human history: as once the birth of God as man had been 
thought to be. The Revolution ushered in the fourth and final stage of 
history. The first stage had extended from the beginning of the world 
to the age of Socrates; the second from Athens to the start of Chris- 
tianity. "The third extends from the promulgation of the glad tidings 
of the Gospel by the Saviour to the American Revolution, which 
events may be deemed the two most important in the history of man- 
kind. With the latter commences a new and more glorious era, of 
which the one immediately preceding it may be considered as little 
more than formative." 

The historic struggle which led to that new and more glorious era 
that era for which the Christian centuries had been but a prologue 
was the subject of Bancroft's History of the United States, a work often 
volumes written between 1834 and 1876. Like Hildreth (who had com- 
posed a six- volume History of the United States between 1849 and 1852, 
a more accurate and considerably duller achievement), Bancroft chose 
to document the last, the American, stage of universal history. What 
he provided, in fact, was less a history than a myth of origins, a narra- 
tive representation of the essential glory of the new era. Bancroft was 
right to call his History "an epic of liberty." For if undependable as 
history, it is recognizable as epic myth. It is thematic, not inclusive; 
its language is incantatory; it is not an account but a celebration of its 
subject: how Providence, as Bancroft said in the Introduction, "con- 
ducted the country to its present happiness and glory." As the massive 

The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

story unfolds through the opening volumes, it becomes clear that what 
Bancroft had envisaged was not an irresistible and irreversible rise of 
man, but rather a death and a rebirth the final disastrous fumbling 
of man's chance in the Old World and the seizing and the triumphant 
exploitation of man's second chance in the New. 

The story begins amid the intricate political and spiritual corrup- 
tions which fatally darkened the world of late medieval and Renais- 
sance Europe. It traces the departure of those few hardy souls able to 
escape the collapsing citadels, watches their perilous landing on the 
new continent, and recounts the long series of crises out of which the 
new society was finally born. Defeat, escape, travel, landings, war, 
victory, rebirth: it is one of the great epic patterns. If there is not a 
single hero, there is at least a single kind of heroism incarnated vari- 
ously in persons like Winthrop, Bradford, Roger Williams, Anne 
Hutchinson (in the first generation), and those in later decades who 
emulated their combative love of liberty. "The citizens of the United 
States," Bancroft intoned, "should . . . cherish . . . the men who, as 
they first trod the soil of the New World, scattered the seminal prin- 
ciples of republican freedom and national independence." And so the 
story goes forward, through endless dangers, forays, intrigues, and 
rebellions, until, with the battles of the Revolution, the final crisis is 
passed, and the new history begins. Bancroft's History functioned as a 
positive demonstration that the New World was the victorious climax 
of the long and painful effort to start afresh. 


Bancroft was occupied primarily with newness, the new birth of 
freedom. But if, alongside Bancroft's histories, we place those of 
Francis Parkman covering the same American centuries, we perceive 
at once that by contrast Bancroft's historical temperament was 
undeviatingly innocent. He was innocently cheerful about human na- 
ture generally and about the men who opened up the new life in the 
New World. "Happiness and glory" were the end-products of their 
activities, according to Bancroft. For Parkman the American story 
was, if anything, the story of a loss, rather than a gain. It was the loss 
of a world in which the possibility of tragedy was central. And for 
Parkman tragedy revealed and tested the authentic greatness of the 
human spirit. 

Parkman (1823-93) was the greatest of the nineteenth-century his- 
torians, as Melville was the greatest of the novelists. Like Melville, 
Parkman was stimulated by the age's most pronounced aspirations, 

1 165 1 

The American Adam 

and, like him, Parkman probed those aspirations to discover and dram- 
atize the reality of suffering and tragedy lying beneath them. Behind 
his scholarly devotion to the established facts, we can plainly hear the 
poet commenting on current tendencies. Without those tendencies, 
Parkman might have been no less devoted to historic truth; but the 
nature of his comment would have been altogether different. Park- 
man's comment was most emphatic about the claims of present glory, 
as uttered by Bancroft, and on the image of the benign forest and its 
taintless inhabitants, as narrated by Cooper. 

Parkman took as his historical subject what had been Cooper's fic- 
tional subject: the American forest. At an early age, as he said later, 
his plans crystallized in the idea of writing the story of "the war that 
ended in the conquest of Canada for here as it seemed to me the 
forest drama was more stirring and the forest stage more thronged 
with appropriate actors than in any other passage in our history." 
He enlarged his plan eventually "to include the whole course of the 
American conflict between France and England, or, in other words, the 
history of the American forest; for this is the light in which I regarded 
it." But both the forest and the drama which Parkman went on to 
explore were substantially and suggestively different from those of 
Cooper or indeed of the novelist Bird, or even of Hawthorne. Park- 
man's attitude to the forest revealed his attitude to history; and his 
attitude to history helped shape his image of the forest. 

Parkman brought to his subject a prose style not easily matched in 
the entire course of American literature for precision and energy and 
hard grace. He was the Melville of the historians incomparably the 
best writer among them; and about his style the only complaint is that 
it was almost overpoweringly masculine. Parkman's masculinity of 
spirit (a key aspect) was very likely an overcompensation for his life- 
long feebleness of body; for Parkman, as for Brockden Brown, life was 
a continuous dull ache but Parkman did not dramatize the ache, he 
fought it down; and what he dramatized was the zest of the fighting. 
Parkman was a dramatizer to the core: but not a self-dramatizer. He 
brought to his subject not only style, but a histrionic sensibility of the 
first order. When he was barely coming of age, in Rome during his 
grand tour, he recorded in his journal about a Roman priest: at the 
announcement of his (Parkman's) Unitarian background the priest 
"rolled up his blood-shot eyes in their black sockets, and stretched his 
skinny neck out of his cowl, like a turtle basking on a stone in sum- 
mer." And he sympathized dramatically, though not doctrinally, with 
the histrionic sensibility of the priests themselves on Good Friday. 


The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

"All the priests looked wretched and disconsolate, as if afflicted with 
some awful disaster. 'He is not up yet,' whispered Mancinelli to me, in 
explanation of the dismal appearance of things." 

These literary gifts made it possible for Parkman as a historian to 
be a novelist of distinction. As a novelist, he was nothing at all; Vassall 
Morton (1856), his only novel, was a flat failure, all surface and no 
depth, and the surface a dry collection of conventional phrases and 
postures. What Parkman was quite unable to do in his effort to con- 
vert autobiography into fiction was just what he did do in his effort to 
bring together the extant records of the French and English in North 
America. He saw the form and contours of the story in them. It is 
Parkman who illustrates better than any of his colleagues the phrase 
"literary historian," which does not mean a historian with a talent for 
turning an occasional pleasing trope to decorate the collected facts. 
The literary historian Parkman, par excellence was the historian 
who saw the body of his subject while still it lay scattered in unor- 
ganized source materials; who re-created the body by reanimating the 
form it required. 

But though Parkman may be usefully compared with Melville, in 
respect of stature and relationship, he was never at any time as Mel- 
ville was, at least partially a member of the party of Hope. The New 
England political idealists who crowded that party were dismissed by 
Parkman, in a revealing epithet, as "she-philosophers"; Brisbane and 
Dana were "windy"; and a reformer he saw listening to their dis- 
courses was pictured as looking "much more like a lunatic or beast 
than a man." In Malta, at the age of twenty, he commended the 
"wholesome system of coercion" he found there; he much admired the 
Maltese treatment of criminals the treatment of "manfully kicking 
the offender into the gutter." "I seem, thank heaven," he reflected, "to 
be carried about half a century backward in time." Here clearly 
marked is the unequivocal accent of the staunch adherent to the party 
of Memory. And yet the motivations for Parkman's peculiar brand of 
nostalgia motivations hinted at by his language: "man," "man- 
fully," "she-philosophers," with the gestures those words unmistak- 
ably carry led him to certain initial attitudes curiously close to those 
of the hopeful. 

They led him, anyhow, to the American forest: literally and physi- 
cally into it, and to a tremendous love for it. He said of himself, in 
the third person, that from his adolescent years onward "his thoughts 
were always in the forest, whose feature possessed his waking and 
sleeping dreams filling him with vague cravings impossible to satisfy." 

1 167 1 

The American Adam 

When he was eighteen, he went up into the White Mountains, in order 
"to have a taste of the half-savage kind of life necessary to be led, and 
to see the wilderness where it was as yet uninvaded by the hand of 
man." Henry David Thoreau, tearing a woodchuck apart with his 
fingers and eating it raw, hovers close to that passage, and provides a 
conclusion for it: "I love the wild not less than the good." It may per- 
haps be said of Parkman that for him the wild was itself the good: or at 
least the realm of the good. His contempt for "civilisation" rivaled 
that expressed by Thoreau in the opening chapter of Walden; but the 
two men arrived at their contempt from suggestively diverse starting 
points. Parkman's attitude betrays itself in the brief survey he gave, 
toward the end of his life, of the changes which had occurred in the 
land beyond the frontier: 

The buffalo is gone, and of all of his millions nothing is left but bones. 
Tame cattle and fences of barbed wire have supplanted his vast herds and 
boundless grazing grounds. The wild Indian is turned into an ugly caricature 
of his conqueror; and that which made him romantic, terrible and hateful, 
is in large measure scourged out of him. The slow cavalcade of horsemen armed 
to the teeth have disappeared before parlor cars and the effeminate comforts 
of modern travel. 

The oppositions established there tell us a good deal. "Tame" is 
opposed to "wild," and "fences" to "boundless": thus far Parkman 
seems to echo both Thoreau and Cooper. But the basis of the opposi- 
tions is shown in the controlling contrast between "terrible," "hate- 
ful," and "armed/' on the one hand, and "effeminate" and "com- 
forts," on the other. Parkman arrived at his dedication to the un- 
fenced, the wild, and the boundless not out of a dream of innocence 
and novelty in a vita nuova but out of a hard, uncompromising, im- 
patient, and severely masculine ideal of life. Parkman's ideal led him 
to condemn the allegedly civilized as thoroughly as did Thoreau, and 
to project, like the hopeful generally, the vision of a state of nature. 
But Parkman's state of nature was Hobbesian, with the difference 
that Parkman only regretted its disappearance. His state of nature 
was a world of violence and total, unending war; a world in which only 
the fittest survived only those with the most unconquerable will; a 
world realizing in outline and content the life worth living, and de- 
manding at every moment the only human virtues worth having. 

This is the world which comes into being in Parkman's histories: the 
world of the American forest from Canada to the mouth of the Mis- 
sissippi and from the sixteenth century onward. 2 It is perhaps a minor 

2. After The Oregon Trail in. 1849, Parkman published History of the Conspiracy of 
Pontiac in 1851; both books, chronologically, are epilogues to the series which then 


The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

paradox that the historian who felt antipathy for the premises of hope 
should come closer in his history to the image of an American Eden 
than did that very type of hopeful historian, George Bancroft. But the 
paradox diminishes as we begin to perceive the quality of experience in 
Parkman's world. One of Parkman's major devices for explaining the 
forest was to distinguish its reality, as he saw it, from the peaceful im- 
age of the hopeful. "Should anyone of my readers ever be impelled to 
visit the prairies [he said in The Oregon Trail] ... I can assure him 
that he need not think to enter at once upon the paradise of his im- 
agination." He concedes that there is a stretch of country which "will 
answer tolerably well to ... preconceived ideas of the prairie; for this 
it is from which picturesque tourists, painters, poets and novelists who 
have seldom penetrated further, have derived their conceptions of the 
whole region." "But let him," he concludes, "be as enthusiastic as he 
may, he will find enough to damp his ardor. His wagons will stick in 
the mud; his horses will break loose; harness will give way; and axle- 
trees prove unsound." The discomforts and the dangers, Parkman felt, 
were there primarily to make the foolish turn back, with their burden 
of illusion. For a man, the discomforts were the prerequisites of enjoy- 
ment: life advanced only through challenging encounters. 

The native representative of that harsh and deceptive world was the 
American Indian: the person whom the Jesuits had come to convert 
two centuries earlier. But the inhabitant was like his environment; and 
he was not, Parkman is careful to point out, the Chingachgook of 
Cooper, the brave and innocent personality untroubled by time. "The 
mind of the savage was by no means that beautiful blank which some 
have represented it." Neither blank nor entirely beautiful, but packed 
with fierce legacies of attitude and aspiration the treacherous and the 
deadly mingling freely with the loyal and the courtly. The actor suited 
his setting; and Parkman devoted nearly a hundred introductory 
pages of The Jesuits in North America to sketching the actor's quali- 
ties, habits, and instincts. The sketch and the narrative which fol- 
lowed it show the Indian and his forest to be closer to Bird's than to 
Cooper's. But though Parkman, like Bird (to whom Parkman refers 
with respect), sets up his image by a critique of Cooper, he exhibits no 

followed. Parkman's next five historical volumes move forward in time, their order of 
appearance matching the order of events: Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), 
The Jesuits in North America (1867), La Salle and the "Discovery oj the Great West (1869), 
The Old Regime in Canada (1874), and Count Frontenac and New France under Louis 
XIV (1877). It is in these volumes that a world "comes into being." The saga of Mont- 
calm and Wolfe ) published in 1884, dealt with events occurring later in time than those 
of Parkman's final volume, A Half-Century of Conflict (1892). 

The American Adam 

trace of the angry and bewildered disenchantment of Nick of the 
Woods for Parkman had never entertained the dangerous illusion to 
begin with. He reveled in just those realities which shocked Nathan 
Slaughter to the edge of madness. 

The whole of Parkman's history, the seven volumes of France and 
England in North America (1851-92), comprises an account of a series 
of great assaults upon the forest and its inhabitants: the assault of the 
spirit, by the Jesuit missionaries; the assault of the will, by soldier- 
adventurers like La Salle; and the assault of craft and political ambi- 
tion. It includes also the occasional counteraction by the inhabitants 
themselves, chiefly the conspiracy of Pontiac, the Iroquois leader. 
Parkman remains today the major source for our knowledge about 
those events; and his reputation as a historian is undoubtedly de- 
served. The reputation is also somewhat misleading, for it rests in part 
upon the notion that Parkman was an impartial spectator, that he was 
"scientifically" detached from his subject. It is true enough that Park- 
man does not seem to be supporting any one of the participants, 
though he pays lip service to the eventual triumph of liberty; and as 
he tells of that triumph, he appears to favor neither the French nor the 
English, neither the Jesuits nor the Indians, neither Montcalm nor 
Wolfe. The fact is, nonetheless, that Parkman had no difficulty in 
being dispassionate about the outcome, because the outcome was not 
what interested him personally. What interested him was the struggle, 
not its resolution; the quality and power of the assaults, not their con- 
clusion. What interested him was struggle in general as the condition 
of life. It was the condition which was supreme in the world with which 
his histories were concerned. 

As a minor instance of his mode of involvement, we can notice his 
treatment of the duel between the Jesuit priest, Le Jeune, and an 
Algonquin medicine man. "From the antagonism of their respective 
professions, the sorcerer hated the priest, who lost no opportunity of 
denouncing his incantations, and who ridiculed his perpetual singing 
and drumming as puerility and folly. The former . . . used every de- 
vice to retort ridicule upon his rival. ... So sorely was [the mission- 
ary] harassed, that, lest he should exasperate his tormentor, he some- 
times passed whole days without uttering a word." Passages like that 
are reminiscent of other debates: the debates, for example, between 
Dr. Holmes's medicine men his psychologizing doctors and the 
ministers they so effortlessly overcome. Parkman, alert to the displace- 
ment of traditional religious positions in his own generation, handles 
the tug-of-war between priest and sorcerer with a chilly humor, dis- 

The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

playing what there was in them of the ancient battle of rival magicians, 
hinting at their generalized symbolic significance. He enjoyed the duel 
and admired each of the duelers only in so far as each showed com- 
petence for the act engaged in. 

As the unfenced, boundless world sheds its cozy, Edenesque quali- 
ties and assumes the character of the war-torn state of nature, so Park- 
man's representative hero becomes not the innocent, time-free 
Adam, the brave and modest Hawkeye, but the man of will, practical 
forcefulness, and unrelenting pride. Of all the particular heroes in his 
long story and there are many from various nations and tribes the 
one who stands out is Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle: La Salle 
(1643-87), who brought the Great Lakes region and its Indian tribes 
under the control of France, and who presented to France the "stu- 
pendous accession" he himself named Louisiana stretching "from the 
Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains; from the Rio Grande and the 
Gulf to the farthest springs of the Missouri." La Salle moves through 
Parkman's volume like a French Ahab, en route by way of tremendous 
leadership and extraordinary accomplishments to a resonantly tragic 
destiny: for La Salle's pride and power and the intolerable exertions 
he demanded of less dedicated men brought about his downfall and 
death, and in the end he was assassinated by one of his own soldiers. 
Parkman's concluding estimate of La Salle deserves full quotation: 

He belonged not to the age of the knight-errant and the saint, but to the 
modern world of practical study and practical action. He was the hero not of 
a principle nor of a faith, but simply of a fixed idea and a determined purpose. 
As often happens with concentrated and energetic natures, his purpose was 
to him a passion and an inspiration. . . . 

Serious in all things, incapable of the lighter pleasure, incapable of repose, 
finding no joy but in the pursuit of great designs, too shy for society and 
too reserved for popularity, often unsympathetic and always seeming so, 
smothering emotions which he could not utter, schooled to universal distrust, 
stern to his followers and pitiless to himself, bearing the brunt of every hard- 
ship and every danger, demanding of others an equal constancy joined to an 
implicit deference, heeding no counsel but his own, attempting the impossible 
and grasping at what was too vast to hold, he contained in his own complex 
and painful nature the chief springs of his triumphs, his failures, and his 

It is easy to reckon up his defects, but it is not easy to hide from sight the 
Roman virtues that redeemed them. Beset by a throng of enemies, he stands, 
like the King of Israel, head and shoulders above them all. He was a tower of 
adamant, against whose impregnable front hardship and danger, the rage of 
man and of the elements, the southern sun, the northern blast, fatigue, 
famine, disease, delay, disappointment, and deferred hope emptied their 
quivers in vain. That very pride which, Coriolanus-like, declared itself most 

The American Adam 

sternly in the thickest press of foes, has in it something to challenge admira- 
tion. Never, under the impenetrable mail of paladin or crusader, beat a heart 
of more intrepid mettle than within the stoic panoply that armed the breast 

All of Parkman is in those lines: all of his world and the push and pres- 
sure of the life within it; his image of heroism; and the reverberating 
relation between that kind of hero and that kind of world; and, finally, 
the poetic principle (the principle of tragic poetic drama) by which he 
brought the world and its hero into being. 

There are other heroes for Parkman all those, Jesuits or Indians, 
as well as French or English, who shared, according to their natures, 
the great virtues of La Salle: the fixed determination, the unflinching, 
forward-thrusting courage, the pride either of person or of purpose or 
of sacred mission, virtues appropriate to their untamed world. Pon- 
tiac, the Iroquois, stands close behind La Salle and, like him, won for 
himself a tragic climax of assassination by a member of his own race; 
behind Pontiac, there are the almost unbelievably durable Jesuit 
priests, continuing, mutilated and reviled, upon their business of con- 
version. Parkman's scorn is reserved for the faltering and the cowardly 
and the undedicated; and his harshest criticism is directed toward 
those who are unable to engage in the struggle which is life. There is 
regret and exasperation in Parkman's summary of the causes for the 
eventual destruction of the Indian tribes (even though that destruc- 
tion led to the triumph of the British and of "liberty"): 

Could they have read their destiny and curbed their mad ambition, they 
might have leagued themselves, with four great communities of kindred 
lineage, to resist the encroachments of civilisation and oppose a barrier of fire 
to the spread of the young colonies of the east. But their organisation and 
their intelligence were merely the instruments of a blind frenzy, which im- 
pelled them to destroy those whom they might have made their allies in a 
common interest. 

Resisting "the encroachments of civilisation" would have been, 
Parkman appears to suggest, a noble and saving action. He looked 
back upon the world of the forest, the world of La Salle and Le Jeune 
and Pontiac, not with wistfulness, not with nostalgia, but with intense, 
full-hearted admiration. The passing of this world was no doubt a vic- 
tory for freedom, but not for any freedom Parkman could honestly 
respond to. He did not regret that the colonials won; he regretted that 
anybody had won. Whether his image of the forest was an accurate 
image of the world as it had been, it was clearly not an image of the 
world as it was; perhaps it was an image of the world as it ought to 

The Function of History: Bancroft and Parkman 

be. Parkman replaced the contemporary dream of a new Adam by his 
own curiously dense and dangerous Eden, where life refreshed itself 
by constant exposure to annihilation. 

But without that contemporary dream, Parkman's tough, ironic, 
masculine ideal might scarcely have been articulated; for it was voiced 
contrapuntally, as a detailed, critical gloss upon the dream. Through 
history, Parkman got in touch with what he took to be the nourishing 
reality behind the current illusion; and history functioned as a measure 
of the soft inadequacies of his own age, a comfort to the temperament 
wearied by the comforts of civilization. 

1 173 1 


The Real Presence: Parker 
and Brownson 

[Theodore Parker] was mad at religion . . . and he 
wished to turn men in utter nakedness out into this bleak 
and wintry world to rely on themselves alone, and to sup- 
port themselves as best they might from their own native 


>T"MJE historical discussion, a century ago, blurred into the theologi- 
X cal, as certain of the more traditional theologians chose to defend 
their own cherished doctrines by attacking the moral assumptions and 
the metaphysical presumptuousness implicit in the historical writings 
of George Bancroft. Those somewhat nervous rebuttals may serve as 
a prologue to inspecting the contemporary theological version of the 
Adamic dream, as well as the theological animadversion it instantly 
aroused. But, first, mention must be made of the special complexities in 
talking about theology at all, as it manifested itself in the age of hope. 
In the history of earlier cultures, the theological aspect might well 
be the crowning aspect, the natural climax of the history in question, 
the final chapter and the end in view. This would be the case in any 
period when theology was regarded as the queen of the sciences and 
the source of their governing principles. In any period persons of a 
certain caste of mind may attempt to follow the medieval method 
announced in the title of St. Bonaventura's famous treatise, and re- 
duce all the arts to theology. But in the nineteenth century, the move- 
ment ran sharply in the other direction: toward a reduction of theolo- 
gy to one of the arts, or toward a diffusion of it among them all. The- 
ology in that age was thus a singularly Protean affair; it existed and 
exercised its influence everywhere and nowhere; intellectual history 
scarcely knows where to have it. For if, by theology, we mean the no- 
tions held and rendered more or less articulate and orderly about 
the relation between God and man; and if, by religion, we mean a radi- 

1 174 1 

The Real Presence: Parker and Bro e wnson 

ance of conscience inciting actions with respect to that ultimate rela- 
tion: then we are faced with a paradox. A century ago, matters (of 
literary endeavor, of historical perspective, of morals) brought for- 
ward with nothing like doctrinal theological definition were nonethe- 
less propelled with something very like a religious force. 

In a sense, the entire program of the party of Hope was religious in 
temper. It represented a concerted effort to renew immediate contact 
with the root source and begetter of things, cutting back through all 
the conditioning legacies which had long formed the context within 
which the ultimate relation was to be established. The repudiation of 
tradition in all its phases was a first step toward getting back as 
Lowell acutely noticed to "the original and eternal life out of which 
all tradition takes its rise/ 1 It revealed the perennial Protestant im- 
pulse toward unmediated communication with divinity. The legend 
of the second chance, the association of the American with the figure 
of Adam, were in this regard altogether the product of a simplified and 
sunny theology. But the legend issued customarily in practices of an 
essentially nontheological nature. 

"The Church, or religious party," Emerson remarked in 1844, with 
his uncanny seismographic accuracy, was "falling away from the 
Church nominal, and . . . appearing in temperance and nonresistance 
societies; in movements of abolitionists and of socialists; and in very 
significant assemblies . . . composed of ultraists, of seekers, of all the 
soul of the soldiery of dissent." 1 The "soldiery" included all the per- 
sons I have collected under Emerson's phrase, the party of Hope. 
Their major accomplishment, perhaps, was to transfer religious ardor 
to the realm of human relations: so that the ancient theological virtue 
of hope (which rested on faith in God) was transformed into the hu- 
man quality of hopefulness (which rested on faith in the heroic Ameri- 
can). For the most part, the theology of the hopeful was coextensive 
with their feeling about the possibilities of life for the new man in the 
New World. 

There remained a few persons, however, still determined to perform 
the classical functions of theology. What these men had to confront 
was not only the current Adamic dismissal of sin and history but also 
the cheerful religious air which accompanied the act of dismissal. In 
order to combat the pretensions of innocence, theologians of an older 
persuasion found it necessary, first of all, to re-establish what they 
took to be the true nature of theology itself. For the central issues, in 

1. Cf. the early chapters of Daniel Aaron's Men of Good Hope (New York, 1951). 
Professor Aaron emphasizes the value of what he calls the "religious baggage" of the 
mid-century reformers, in contrast with the opportunistic juggling of their successors in 
the twentieth century. 

The American Adam 

their minds, could be resolved only in theological terms : in terms, that 
is, of the relation between man and God. 

The historian George Bancroft was a particular target of the theo- 
logians, as historicism in general was their special enemy. Orestes 
Brownson, for example, reviewing the first four volumes of Bancroft's 
History y accused Bancroft of confounding history and theology almost 
beyond the possibilities of disentanglement. Brownson by this time 
(1852) was a Roman Catholic busy with the task of fitting the expand- 
ing jumble of American culture within the orderly schemes of the 
Roman church: a preposterous, though honorable, enterprise. To that 
end, Brownson was anxious to press anew the traditional scholastic 
distinctions; and he condemned Bancroft for muddling the disciplines, 
for using history rather than writing it using "history for the pur- 
pose of setting forth his speculative theories on God, man and socie- 
ty," a singularly effective and insidious device for "destroying all true 
intellectual and moral life." In Brownson's eyes, Bancroft offered bad 
history in order to conceal a spurious theology. 

Meanwhile, Taylor Lewis, an irascible professor of Old Testament 
at Union College a man who showed up fairly often in the periodi- 
cals of the fifties expressing his nostalgic distaste for the drift of reli- 
gious thought urged against Bancroft and his colleagues a like dis- 
tinction in the area of observed human experience. Lumping together 
Emerson, Parker, Fourier, and Horace Greeley along with Bancroft 
in a shared mystique, Lewis saw all of them as systematically breaking 
the distinction not only between theology and history, but more 
fundamentally between the finite and the infinite between man and 
God. In their view, Lewis reported vexatiously, God himself was a 
historical phenomenon; history encompassed everything; and any 
intrusion of a divine or supra-historical being in the flow of temporal 
events was categorically denied. "The very instinct by which we 
pray proves the possibility of Divine interposition," Lewis argued; but 
he acknowledged that the need for prayer had been implicitly abol- 
ished by the hopeful. What was there to pray for? 

Perhaps the most illuminating of the rebuttals to Bancroft was 
made by one Caleb Sprague Henry, an Episcopal clergyman of New 
York, an alert and forward-looking scholar, and a "Christian tran- 
scendentalist." In his "Remarks on Mr. Bancroft's Oration of Human 
Progress" (1855), Henry's normally charitable soul was enflamed to 
the point of calling the doctrine carried in that oration "pernicious 
rigmarole" because "it is calculated to make men 'accept the present 
state of the world* in a way that we regard as detrimental to true prog- 

1 176 1 

The Real Presence: Parker and Brownson 

ress." 2 True progress, Henry insisted (as the elder James and Horace 
Bushnell were simultaneously insisting), "begins in a sense of the need 
for reformation. It begins . . . with repentance, and that begins in the 
sense of sinfulness and evil/' Henry's antinostalgic motivation is clear 
from his emphasis on the optimistic character of the recognition of 
evil: "the promise is hopeful in proportion as the sense of sin is per- 
vading and deep." 

Henry was more concerned with the hope than with the sin; but he 
felt that that hope would remain smothered so long as the contempo- 
rary indifference to or hatred of the past persisted. "The old historical 
life of humanity," he urged, "must not be regarded as standing in no 
relations, much less relations purely hostile, to the life of the present"; 
for "the spirit of true progress" just as it began in the sense of sin 
"is an organising not a destroying spirit." And with an exceptional 
sharpness of insight that carried him a crucial step forward into the 
area of theology proper, Henry touched the nerve-center of the entire 
problem: the intimate connection (as he believed) between the sense of 
sin and the real value of "the old historical life of humanity." What 
gave that historical life its life y Henry proposed, was the active pres- 
ence within it of the supra-historical. From the latter there could be 
no break: not, at least, without moral diaster. History so considered 
was primarily the history of "an historical institution" which em- 
bodied "supernatural divine efficacies." History so understood was 
thus the channel of grace. The past was the vessel of the perfect and 
the means by which imperfection restored itself in communion with 
the perfect. The human spirit, contemplating divine perfection, could 
not but perceive its own relative sinfulness, and so be stirred to the 
course of true progress. It was, Henry thought, to sustain that prog- 
ress that the "divine efficacies" were present in history. A hostility to 
the past was therefore a form of moral self-enslavement. 

What Henry wrote sparingly in articles and letters to the press 
Orestes Brownson was at the same time writing very large. But 
Brownson is not to be separated from his friend, the hopeful theologi- 
an Theodore Parker. The issue between the two men had a kind of 
clean finality. Both men agreed that the question of tradition was 
bound up with the question of human nature and its resources and 

2. This quotation and the major part of Henry's most relevant comments are con- 
tained in a volume of essays and articles called Considerations on Some of (he Elements 
and Conditions of Social Welfare and Human Progress (New York, 1861). The phrase 
"Christian transcendentalist" is borrowed from Ronald V. Wells, Three Christian 
Transcendentalists (New York, 1943), a book which includes studies of James Marsh 
and Frederick Hedge as well as Henry. 


The American Adam 

that the problem was ultimately theological. But Parker, confident 
about humanity, saw theology exploding the value of tradition. And 
Brownson, aroused by that verdict, went on to the belief and the at- 
tempted demonstration that tradition was the supreme resource of 
imperfect mankind. 


Theodore Parker of Massachusetts (1810-60) had a powerfully de- 
fined personality; and in seeking to identify him, one is drawn as his 
friends were to a host of analogies from the age of the Renaissance, 
the time when personality first came into its own. "Our Savonarola," 
Emerson called him, alluding no doubt to Parker's zeal and rhetorical 
skill rather than to his beliefs. For Parker was also a kind of Rabelais, 
or Savonarola revoltt: a man of enormous learning, which he fairly 
hurled in all directions in support of the most trivial point; a man 
drunk on la dive bouteille of the accumulated knowledge of innumerable 
traditions, in none of which was he enlisted; a man of passion and 
temper, of boisterous humor and large appetites. He was an American 
Rabelais, surprisingly engaged in the mission of an American Luther; 
for through all the ringing declarations of man's natural and unlimited 
potentialities, we hear the violently earnest, ruggedly intractable 
voice of Martin Luther insisting again on the individual's direct and 
personal communication with his God. 

Contemplating the vastness of his erudition he was said to have 
owned the largest library of its kind in New England, while his editors 
point in some consternation to allusions in his writings to nearly as 
many volumes more it is astonishing how little he finally had to say. 
A small mouse of a doctrine emerged after all the convulsions of labor 
by a whole mountain range of information. On the theological side, his 
entire intellectual progress was reductive. His learning was exploited 
in the way of refutation and denial. His theology was a singular appli- 
cation of Thoreau's injunction to simplify, simplify, simplify. His the- 
ology was in fact Adamic; the very first and the very least that could 
or need be said about his primary relation, by the free individual 
spirit standing flush with the universe at the dawn of time. Parker's 
great and simple ambition was just that: to persuade all individuals 
that they were as freshly created and as close to their creator "now 
[in his own words] as in the days of Adam." 

He arrived at his religious doctrine, in the manner of his age and 
party, by gradually shedding the cultural inheritance. The Calvinist 
creed he found it unnecessary to reject; he had only to hate it. His 

I '78 1 

The Real Presence: Parker and Bmumson 

parents had rejected it for him: his father (a Lexington, Massachu- 
setts, farmer of some indiscriminate learning) on rational grounds; his 
mother, because it seemed monstrous. His progress at first was slow, 
almost sluggish. In 1831, he could confess to having "derived much 
advantage" from a six-day meeting conducted by that unrelenting 
Presbyterian, Lyman Beecher, though Parker added that Beecher 
had, perhaps, offered "too harsh a remedy for gentle souls." At the 
Divinity School in Cambridge (1834-36), his meditations, so far as 
they are recorded, were conventional enough. Doctrine scarcely in- 
terested him, as he dutifully copied into his notebook inert and 
moralistic advices on personal conduct. It was not Cambridge which 
awoke him but the stimulating agitations he encountered after his 
ordination in 1837 and his first appointment, to West Roxbury: agi- 
tations which, sparked by the first orations and addresses of Emerson, 
were the birth pangs of the intellectual party which would symbolize 
the age. Parker soon was adding his comments to conversations in 
Boston between Dr. Channing, George Ripley (Parker's best friend), 
Bronson Alcott, Frederick Hedge, Wendell Phillips, and others no less 
hopefully minded. The agitations and the talk, combined with Park- 
er's almost unbelievable capacity for reading, suddenly appeared to 
shoot the man forward to get him out, in a single burst of energy, 
from the old fuzzy round of Unitarian speculation. By November, 
1838 only a couple of years after leaving Cambridge Parker was 
writing to a friend with much authority that the Christian miracles 
"relate to the history, but not to the doctrines of Christianity. Prove 
to me that they never took place, that there never was a Paul or a 
John or a Jesus, and I will still prove that Christianity is true; it was 
true before Christ; for it is older than the creation." He had come al- 
most at one bound to the position he would never thereafter abandon. 
For Parker's identifying position the core and, indeed, very nearly 
the whole of his hopeful theology was the absolute separation of 
history and religion. He was not merely willing, more and more pub- 
licly, to discredit the historical truth of the miracles reported by the 
Evangelists; the question of miracles was only the occasion for those 
debates which, largely because of Parker, shook the foundations of 
contemporary Unitarianism. Parker wanted to remove religion from 
the context of history altogether, and to imbed religion in the very 
structure of the human soul. It was history, according to Parker, which 
made difficult or impossible the presence of the real. The more histori- 
cal information Parker gathered, the more he wanted to extract from 
the historical and transient what he began to call "the permanent 

1 179 1 

The American Adam 

elements of religion." It was a curious proceeding and highly Ameri- 
can: to canvass the past exhaustively, in order to show that the indi- 
vidual soul in the New World had no organic relation to any scrap of it. 
Anticipating the historians and outdistancing them at their own game, 
Parker hastened to insist that the historical evidences of Christianity 
were dubious and finally irrelevant; Christianity was something other 
than a history; and he ended in the corollary conviction, which he 
accepted without ever quite confronting it, that neither religious ex- 
perience nor religious effort required any help whatever from an or- 
ganized tradition. This was his root principle, his position, and his doc- 
trine: that religion was not something to be exercised in the center of 
a continuing historical life, but was an affair of the private soul, a 
matter of instantaneous, individual intuition or "inspiration": one 
of Parker's favorite words. 

In coming to his position, Parker drew, of course, upon the current- 
ly popular aids from abroad: for example, from the German idealism 
of Kant and Fichte which had so undermined the empirical psycholo- 
gy of John Locke. Edwards had used Locke to shore up a staggering 
Calvinism in the eighteenth century; Parker used Kant to dispose of 
all religious "outwardness," Calvinist or otherwise. His disciple and 
biographer, O. B. Frothingham, described the case well: "The author- 
ity of all outward instrumentalities, church, bible, creed, was tacitly 
repudiated before a single scripture was doubted, or a single miracle 
denied. The vessels of clergymen, rite, ceremony, church, were not 
scuttled until the spiritual freight they carried had been transferred 
to the spiritual nature, there to be secure from hidden reef or sudden 
tempest." Parker drew also upon the arguments by the school of 
David Strauss of Berlin (1808-74) that Jesus was not only a mere 
mortal and no God, but in all probability had never existed at all. 

But those foreign aids were, for Parker as for most of his colleagues, 
precisely aids and no more: midwives of their ideas, not the source of 
them. The new theology, like the new ethical attitude, was the prod- 
uct of native pressures: the pressures of a joyous radicalism in all 
fields of thought and expression. Parker subjected the substance of reli- 
gion to the radical critique: to see what remained of it, when the com- 
plex of historic legacies had been washed away as others were puri- 
fying and reinspecting the moral personality. Parker found the condi- 
tion of religion, before the act of purification, to be this: 

As old religions became superannuated and died out, they left to the rising 
faith [i.e., early Christianity] as to a residuary legatee, their forms, and 
their doctrines; or rather as the giant in the fable left his poisoned garment 

The Real Presence: Parker and Broivnson 

to work the overthrow of his conqueror. . . . The stream of Christianity has 
caught a stain from every soil it has filtered through; so that now it is not 
the pure water from the well of life which is offered to our lips, but streams 
troubled and polluted by men with mire and dirt. 

Those sentences from Parker's stormily controversial sermon of May 
19, 1841, "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity" are 
almost a pastiche of the favorite hopeful attitudes and imagery. The 
hopeful celebration elsewhere of "the clear conscience unsullied by the 
past" was echoed in Parker's clear new religion, unstained by history. 
For the mission of this hope-affirming Yankee Luther was to call his 
countrymen back to the source of the now sullied religious stream 
filtering out of it those elements which over the centuries had muddied 
its depths: institutions, creeds, rites, customs, relationships, and forms 
of expression. 

What was left? Parker planted himself, as Frothingham remarked, 
"on the ground that man has a spiritual nature endowed with original 
capacity to apprehend primary religious truth directly, without the 
mediation of sacrament, creed or Bible." Just what those primary or 
permanent truths consisted in, it is not easy to say; the Adamic vision 
was always more readily described by its opposition. Parker himself 
seemed to believe that language was the first spoliation of the primal 
simplicity, and it was better adapted to repudiate than to define. The 
permanent was, in any case, not a creed or even a proposition; it was 
perhaps an irreducible awareness of a being transcending the human 
being related to it in an encompassing love, and so close and intimate 
with the individual soul that it was the soul's first, best object of 

In the fall of 1841 only a few months after the sermon on "The 
Transient and the Permanent," and in the wake of the vicious attacks 
that sermon had aroused Parker gave a series of lectures in Boston 
on "Matters Pertaining to Religion." The lectures were published in 
book form the following year. Their aim was to sink the whole of his- 
torical Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, beneath the weight 
of Parker's scholarly cross-examination. He assumed a position critical 
at once of "the Catholic party" and "the Protestant party." The 
whole parcel of traditional beliefs and practices, whether of the tough- 
spirited Calvinist or the genial Unitarian or the comprehensive Catho- 
lic variety, was undone, scrutinized, and tossed aside. Notions of sin 
and redemption were repudiated, and the institutional machinery 
erected to combat the sin and hustle the redemption was declared out- 
dated and useless. The Trinity was exposed as an invention; Jesus 

The American Adam 

identified as an attractive, if somewhat unstable, young man who had 
lived and died a good many years before; the Holy Ghost was never 
mentioned; and the Bible interpreted as a suggestive, but often con- 
tradictory and so hardly authoritative, collection of poems, fables, and 
gossip. Much more than half of the discourse was critical. What then 
remained the tiny primitive nugget of belief, the stripped theology 
of what Parker called "the party that are neither Catholics nor Prot- 
estants" came simply to this: 

This party has an idea wider and deeper than that of Catholic or Protes- 
tant, namely that God still inspires men as much as ever; that he is imminent 
in spirit as in space. . . . This [doctrine] relies on no church, tradition, or scrip- 
ture. ... It relies on the divine presence in the nature of man. ... It be- 
lieves God is near the soul as matter to the sense. ... It calls God father and 
mother, not king; Jesus, brother, not redeemer; heaven home, religion nature. 
It loves and trusts but does not fear. 

Even there, in his desire to cut through to primary truth, Parker leans 
heavily on the negative. 

Nineteen years more of reading, writing, and preaching would not 
bring Theodore Parker to elaborate very much upon that minimalist 
opinion. His career during those years was punctuated rather by his 
vigorous and admirable participation in the antislavery movement 
and in editorial and literary activities militantly devoted to the social 
condition of men and women in a genuine democracy. His slender the- 
ology could scarcely supply him with any answers to those great ques- 
tions; but it could give him a radiant confidence in God and in man 
and that confidence spurred him to intense social reformist efforts, 
erupting sometimes in a towering rage at all those who did not share 
it. Parker's religious doctrine was so small as to be nearly invisible; 
what was large about it was its boldness. For it was indeed bold, bold 
in the way of the entire party of Hope breaking through the collected 
arguments of centuries to confront even God in fresh and personal 
terms. Where Emerson had saluted "the plain old Adam, the simple 
genuine self against the whole world," Parker saluted that Adam 
standing self-reliantly in the presence of transcendent being. 

Parker continued to think of himself as a Unitarian, busy recalling 
the Unitarians to their true belief. 'The Unitarians," he wrote, "have 
no recognised and public creed. It used to be their glory." It was, he 
urged, to be their glory once more; but his Unitarian colleagues did not 
thank him for saying so. After his sermon in May, 1841, he was abused 
as a scorner, a blasphemer, a hypocrite, a second-rater, and a senti- 
mentalist; he was invited (but refused) to withdraw at once from the 

I 182 I 

The Real Presence: Parker and Bmumson 

Unitarian association. After his lectures the following autumn, the 
younger ministers took to dodging around corners when they saw him 
approaching; with every good reason, they trembled in the fear of 
guilt by association. And yet the Unitarians tended, if anything, to 
underestimate Parker's achievement, not to exaggerate it. 

Ever since St. Paul, the spokesmen for Christianity had been 
preaching "the new man" the individual who was born anew after 
the death of "the natural man," the individual who died into life. 
Christianity was a centuries-long admission that the majority of man- 
kind was unable or unwilling to do so. Theodore Parker was the one 
to come up with the breath-taking suggestion that every individual 
was in spirit and in fact a perfectly new man, as new as Adam, each 
the first man, each the new unfallen. And this, Parker proposed, with- 
out the need for holy dying. 

The challenge to the individual soul was nothing more than the exer- 
cise of that life already present to it. The perfect was instantly present 
to the soul, so long as that soul was itself unsullied by the past, or as 
soon as the "mire and dirt" of customs, practices, and doctrines in- 
troduced by men across the ages had been mentally washed away 
from the pure, primal revelation. The perfect lay ready to be known 
and enjoyed by any spirit capable of divesting itself of the muddying 


Among those attending Parker's lectures in the fall of 1841 was a 
Unitarian minister named Orestes Brownson (1803-76). "At that 
time," Brownson recalled later, "[Parker] was one of my highly prized 
personal friends, a young man full of life and promise. There was no 
young man of my acquaintance for whom I had a higher regard, or 
from whom I hoped so much." Brownson came round to the lectures 
expecting to receive a further clarification of his own religious belief 
with which, he assumed, Parker was largely in accord. The more he 
listened, the more uneasy he became. 

The lectures . . . contained nothing except a learned and eloquent state- 
ment of the doctrine which I had long defended, and which I have called the 
Religion of humanity. But, strange as it may seem, the moment I heard that 
doctrine from his lips, I felt a repugnance to it, and saw, or thought I saw, at a 
glance, that it was unphilosophical and anti-religious. 

Parker's lectures, Brownson was to think, were what "forced my mind 
to take the direction it did": which was the direction of the traditional 
understanding of tradition; the direction, finally and after a great deal 

1 183 1 

The American Adcan 

more meditation, of the church of Rome. For Theodore Parker him- 
self, those lectures were a point of no return; for Orestes Brownson, 
they were a dramatic turning point. 

Parker's approach to God depended upon "intuition" or "inspira- 
tion." The doctrine he unwittingly prodded Brownson into formulating 
turned rather on the notion of "communion." The difference between 
the two men is suggested by the difference between those key terms. 
They symbolized an ultimate difference in theologies, nourished by a 
profound difference in temperaments. Intuition and communion, two 
ways of touching the nature above nature, followed from two different 
judgments about the structure and the strength of the individual; and 
they involved two different appraisals of the value of the past. The 
conclusion Brownson reached respecting Protestantism, after many 
months of speculation in the light of Parker's discourses, was this: 
"The error of Protestantism was in that it broke with tradition, broke 
with the past, and cut itself off from the body of Christ, and therefore 
from the channel through which the Christian life is communicated." 

It was a packed statement, linking together in one swift series of 
clauses the relation of man to the historic past and the relation of man 
to transcendent being. It was packed the more tightly because there 
went into it the long interior dialogue and the public and private expe- 
riences which had constituted Brownson 's life to that moment (1844). 

Brownson was a wanderer, in fact and in temperament. He prowled 
restlessly, during the first four decades of his life, from state to state 
(Vermont, New Hampshire, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts); 
from Protestant sect to Protestant sect (Presbyterian, Universalist, 
independent or "Humanitarian," Unitarian); from enterprise to enter- 
prise (preaching, editing, social reform, literary criticism, political 
comment, theology). His Catholic biographers see him, not surprising- 
ly, moving in a steady line to his true destination; 3 but, as Brownson 
himself might have said, a kind of nonhistorical evidence is needed for 
such an analysis. It might well be argued that he entered the Roman 
church(as he did on October 20, 1844) just because that church, for a 
New Englander of the age, was a trifle alien, a shade exotic. In a time 
when heresy was becoming the convention, there was a measure of 
startling originality in embracing the oldest, firmest orthodoxy of all. 
When Brownson 's friend and colleague, Isaac Hecker, was contem- 
plating conversion to Catholicism, it was Hecker whom his neighbors 
in Concord regarded as eccentric definitely more so than Thoreau, in 

3. E.g., Theodore Maynard, Orestes Brownson (New York, 1943), a learned, know- 
ing, and ingratiating work. 

The Real Presence: Parker and Bmwnson 

whose house Hecker was then living; or Margaret Fuller; or Bronson 
Alcott. 4 Brownson's personal urgings were different from those of the 
mystical, poetic Issac Hecker; they divided between them the legalis- 
tic and prophetic traditions of Catholicism; but Brownson seemed not 
much less peculiar to his many observers. 

Like other wanderers and eccentrics, Brownson moved in and out of 
the center of many things. He had the universal curiosity of Parker 
and a comparable itch to make pronouncements about everything. 
The Boston Quarterly Review, which he founded and which he edited 
for four years (1838-42), was contributed to principally by himself; 6 
and its successor, founded in 1844, was more fittingly called Brownson' s 
Quarterly Review. He held forth with almost equal zest on politics, 
economics, literature, history, and theology, and any combination of 
these. And if his remarks upon immediate trends and newly published 
books (Cooper's American Democrat, for example, or Emerson's 
poems) were not always alight with perceptiveness, Brownson did 
have a sharp eye for the significant; in retrospect, it must be said that 
he talked about the important trends and the right books. Emerson 
said about him, somewhat impatiently, that Brownson never listened 
either in conversation, or, what was more important according to 
Emerson, in solitude. We do indeed get the impression of a highly 
charged bear of a man, talking endlessly and often banging on the 
table, seizing in a rush of language upon any new idea or program 
which happened to arise, shifting his attention without pause to the 
subject arising next. His prose, which now fills twenty volumes, could 
have used a most merciless pruning; but Brownson was the kind of 
writer who never had the time to be brief. And if he failed to attend 
closely enough to Emerson's words or those of other interlocutors, it 
was partly because he had a very lively conversation on his hands al- 
ready a conversation with himself. Brownson wrestled and wrangled 

4. Rev. Walter Elliott, The Life of Father Hecker (New York, 1898), pp. 88-89. 
Emerson, Hecker recalled many years later, "invited me to tea with him, and he kept 
leading up to the subject and I leading away from it. The next day he asked me to 
drive over with him to the Shakers, some fifteen miles. We stayed over night, and all 
the way there and back he was fishing for my reasons, with the plain purpose of dissuad- 
ing me. Then Alcott and he arranged matters so that they cornered me in a sort of inter- 
view, and Alcott frankly developed the subject. I finally said, 'Mr. Alcott, I deny your 
inquisitorial right in this matter,' and so they let it drop. One day, however, I was 
walking along the road, and Emerson joined me. Presently, he said 'Mr. Hecker, I 
suppose it was the art, the architecture and so on in the Catholic Church which led you 
to her?' 'No,' said I; 'but it was what caused all that.'" Isaac Hecker (1819-88) 
attended both Brook Farm and Alcott's Fruitlands, in the course of his own wanderings. 

5. Among other occasional contributes, there were George Bancroft, Margaret 
Fuller, George Ripley, Elizabeth Peabody, and Albert Brisbane. 

1 185 1 

The American Adam 

with himself all his life; the give-and-take became perhaps more sub- 
dued and orderly after his conversion; but it erupted from time to 
time even then, and on into his troubled but vigorous old age. 

Brownson had a tireless affection for logical argument an affection 
at once outlandish and irritating for those temperaments (and they 
were in the great intellectual majority) dedicated to intuition and 
dreams, feeling and instinct. With Orestes Brownson, the logic excur- 
sion was a sort of austere brooding, a remorseless self-inquiry. Whether 
his trust in logic hastened his decision about Rome, one cannot surely 
determine. His brand of logic was of the sort indulged in far more by 
the Romanists than by the romantics. And yet logic may not, per- 
haps, be the quickest path to the traditional theology for anyone who 
begins quite outside that theology. The fact, anyhow, is this: that 
Brownson came to his opinions about "communion" and hence to 
his opinion about the value of tradition, and hence, belatedly, to the 
church of Rome, not out of emotional ecstasy, or because of a senti- 
mental attachment to the art and the architecture, but because the 
traditional doctrines were the ones that made the most sense to him. 

Brownson pushed and reasoned his way toward his doctrine of com- 
munion during the year or so after attending Parker's lectures. He 
offered a first brisk formulation of it in a letter to Dr. Channing, the 
most eminent member of the Unitarian group to which Brownson 
then belonged, and a man whom Brownson addressed as "my spiritual 
father." By communion, Brownson wrote (in June, 1842), he meant 
"the doctrine that man lives by communion with man, and through 
the life derived from Jesus, with God." Two considerations which had 
absorbed Brownson most for some years the status of the past and 
the question of community began to be fused with that formulation. 
And the fusion began under the force of Brownson's conviction that 
only transcendent being taken as interpenetrating natural being 
explained the living value of the past and the necessity of human 

As editor, critic, and commentator in his Boston Quarterly Review, 
Brownson had been an alert trend-spotter and an able cataloguer of 
the intellectual forces of the day. His sympathies were with the party 
of Hope or "movement party," as he liked to call it but he was 
never stampeded by that party's enthusiasm into abolishing all con- 
nection with the past. "We would think with the Radical, but often 
act with the Conservative," he remarked, in a political address deliv- 
ered in September, 1837. "If progress be a law of our race, as it un- 
questionably is, we must accept it in everything," he urged on another 

1 186 1 

The Real Presence: Parker and Brownson 

occasion; but he normally included the admonition that "progress is 
always slow and slow let it be ... we wish no haste, no violence in 
pulling down old institutions or in building up new ones." He was 
dourly amused by the thoughtful conservatism of Cooper's American 
Democrat, "a double batter/' he wrote, "charged alike against those 
who believe too much in the past, and those who believe too much in 
the future." His scholastic temperament led him to make further dis- 
tinctions between the contemporary parties, in terms of their attitudes 
to the past. Not only were there writers "in the twilight state . . . fol- 
lowing with longing admiration the descending glory of the past," for 
whom "the present is weary and worn," and their opposites, those 
writers "in morning wakefulness" for whom "the present is bright 
. . . with hope." There were also certain idealists "in the midnight 
season of thought, lone and abstracted watching the truths of eter- 
nity as they smile through far space on a darkened world"; and a 
fourth class, "in the noonday and sunny cheerfulness," full of content- 
ment with "God's providence in the present time." 

Brownson's sense of the profound value of continuity, nourished 
through several years of eclectic shifting ("I am myself an eclectic," 
he rashly announced in 1840), found its first serious expression in a 
long article of October, 1842, when he was part way toward Rome: 

The human race is subjected to a law of continuity which presides over all 
its development and growth. . . . The present was elaborated in, and evolved 
from the past. The future must be ... the elaboration and evolution of the 
present. . . . According to this law, all radicalism, that is to say all destruction 
of what was fundamental in that which has preceded, or the creation of an order 
of life, religious, social or philosophical, that is new in its fundamental ele- 
ments, is necessarily condemned. 

Brownson wanted the present to be continuous with what was funda- 
mental in the life of the past. By 1842, he was on the verge of identify- 
ing the foundation to his own satisfaction; but meanwhile he was also 
thinking about the nature of the human community, and about the 
purpose and value of social experience. He teased the Fourierites for 
their "assumption of that greatest of all absurdities, the perfection of 
nature." He discarded at once the first hopeful principle; but he ap- 
proved of the Fourierite emphasis on social organization, and con- 
demned the self-reliant and the sponsors of self-culture for their ap- 
parent belief that "mankind" was "a mere aggregate of individuals." 
Brownson was sure that mankind was to adopt a modern slang 
phrase really something; but what made it something, he could not 
as yet perceive. 

The American Adam 

As he tells the story in his personal memoir of 1857, The Convert, 
Brownson escaped from the closed circle of his own speculations by 
arriving at an insight about the theory of knowledge. With the help 
of Leroux, a French epistemologist, Brownson came to the conclusion 
that thought resulted from the co-operation of subject and object, of 
perceiver and thing perceived, and that it was not the exclusive prod- 
uct of either. This proposition, a former commonplace, ran counter to 
the two chief theories of the day: that of the empiricists, that the sub- 
ject was passive before the impingement of the object upon it, and 
that of the idealists, that the object was formally the creation of the 
subject. Ethical, political, and even theological implications began to 
swarm in Brownson 's mind as he further contemplated the notion of 
co-operation, working-together or, as he took to calling it, commun- 
ion. It seemed to him now that all individual spiritual growth de- 
pended on communion between the individual nature and the object 
which could enlarge and nourish it: the visible and intelligible world, 
the society of men, the continuing course of history. 

If Brownson had been a novelist, he might at this moment have 
composed fiction not unlike the fiction of Hawthorne; for he had come 
as far as humanism could carry him, and he was equipped now to visu- 
alize experience dramatically as the interplay of personality with the 
complex historical social world. As it was, he argued his way onward 
toward identifying the ultimate object with which the human subject 
should commune; and his aspirations were momentarily appeased by 
the notion of humanity itself. Then he listened to Theodore Parker, 
and realized with disconcerting swiftness that both Parker and he had 
fallen into the contemporary trap of attributing religious or extra-hu- 
man power to what was, after all, purely human. He saw that humani- 
ty could not, of itself, possess that larger-than-human dimension with 
which the human spirit needed to unite. And having seen so much, 
he saw also that humanity was, nonetheless, the channel to that 
larger-than-human dimension by means of the one human who was at 
the same time divine: indeed, by means of the organic historical proc- 
ess set abruptly in motion at the instant God entered into human 
history as Christ. 

Pondering these fresh discoveries, Brownson put them at last in an 
order which, for him, made everything clear. The individual needed 
redemption but could be redeemed only by intense and enduring com- 
munion with God; but communion with God was possible for man 
only by means of the man-God, Christ. Communion with Christ was 
possible only by communion with continuing history, or "tradition" 

The Real Presence: Parker and Brownson 

that is, historical Christianity ("forget historical Christianity," Emer- 
son had long been warning). Brownson wrote in The Convert: 

We who live at this day do not communicate directly with Christ our 
Lord. We do it, and can do it, only through the medium of others. The 
Apostles and Disciples lived in personal intercourse with him, and therefore 
communed with him directly and immediately as their object. By this direct 
and immediate communion, his Divine-human life became infused into their 
life. Others, by communion with them, partake of the same life. The succeed- 
ing generation participated in it by communing with its predecessor. Thus by 
communion the life may be infused through all men living contemporaneously, 
and transmitted to the latest posterity. 

In suggesting that tradition was an obstacle to the soul's relation 
with God and in breaking with tradition, Protestantism was uncon- 
sciously implying that the soul stood in no need of divine grace and 
was implicitly cutting itself off from the possibility of grace. For tra- 
dition was the very instrument of grace. 

The error of Protestantism was in that it broke with tradition, broke with 
the past, and cut itself off from the body of Christ, and therefore from the 
channel through which the Christian life is communicated. Protestantism was 
a schism, a separation from the source and current of the Divine-human life 
which redeems and saves the world. 

Only through the continuing vitality and the continuing invocation 
of traditional Christian customs and practices and creeds and cere- 
monies all those things Theodore Parker had ceremoniously swept 
away could God be made really present to the human soul. Quite 
contrary to Parker's belief that the past was an impediment to the 
soul's vision of perfection, Brownson now laid it down that the past 
and the perfect were inseparable, and that the perfect entered the soul 
only as the living tradition flowed steadily into the immediate present. 


A very comparable analysis of the character of genuine religious 
tradition had been made a few years earlier (1852), and in incompara- 
bly handsomer language, not by a theologian, but by a critic and poet 
James Russell Lowell. Lowell's account of the mystery of the Real 
Presence as the very basis of tradition is doubly suggestive. It reminds 
us how close the discussion of these matters was in quite different 
fields of expression; and it shows that the subject of tradition was 
more suited, in the age of hope, to the language of the imagination 
than to the relatively crude and colorless terminology of an Orestes 

Lowell had gone to Europe in 1851. It was a symbolic gesture, a 


The American Adam 

"signing-off" from the party of Hope, of which he had been an enthu- 
siastic member. The same young man who had remarked in 1845, and 
with all assurance, that "we deem that but a bastard greatness which 
must take root in the past, fearing to trust its seed to the dim future/ 1 
was now proposing that "eyes were given us to look about us sometimes 
and not to be always looking forward"; he would shortly be unwilling 
to give up anything "that had roots to it, though it might suck up its 
food from graveyards/' Lowell is a relatively uncommon instance of 
a move from hope to memory, reversing the more usual spiritual jour- 
ney of his age. By 1851, he had just begun his pilgrimage back; and, 
with traces of his former hopefulness still clinging to him, he was able 
to scrutinize what he found in Europe with an acute and critical as 
well as an appreciative eye. 

He was impressed, first of all, by the extremes "of permanence, un- 
changeableness, repose," as against the New World, where everything 
seemed to be "shifting like quicksand." He wondered for a while 
whether some synthesis might not be possible, between the enduring 
and the changing. Reflecting thus on the double value of stability and 
vitality, Lowell came, at Rome, to one of the generation's most elo- 
quent statements of the character and behavior of a living tradition. 
A decade earlier, he had been impishly scornful of the nostalgic. "The 
educated taste" he had detected in the Boston galleries appeared to 
him merely a sterile failure to respond to anything but the uncom- 
promisingly classic. No new work was acceptable to the man of taste, 
Lowell thought, unless it reproduced to a detail "the charm of an old 
one." "Put the right foot of Apollo forward instead of the left and call 
it Philip of Pokanoket, and he is in ecstasies over a work at once so 
truly national and so classic." But now in Italy, as he watched the 
quite different way in which memory illuminated the present, he re- 
alized that tradition in America was as inflexible as a death-grip, an 
enslavement of the present by lifeless, isolated fragments of the past, 
and he understood that an authentic tradition was a comprehensive 
and life-giving affair. 

Drawing his controlling figure from the ritual of the Mass and the 
doctrine of the Real Presence, Lowell explained tradition to his 
American readers thus: 

Supposing that a man in pouring down a glass of claret could drink the 
South of France, that he could so disintegrate the wine by the force of imagina- 
tion as to taste in it all the clustered beauty and bloom of the grape, all the 
dance and song and sunburnt jollity of the vintage. Or suppose that in eating 
bread he could transubstantiate it with the tender blade of spring, the gleam- 

The Real Presence: Parker and Broivnson 

fitted corn-ocean of summer, the royal autumn with its golden beard, and the 
merry funerals of harvest. That is what the great poets do for us, we cannot 
tell how, with their fatally-chosen words, crowding the happy veins of lan- 
guage again with all the life and meaning and music that had been dribbling 
away from them since Adam. And this is what the Roman Church does for 
religion, feeding the soul not with the essential religious sentiment, not with 
a drop or two of the tincture of worship, but making us feel one by one all 
those original elements of which worship is composed; not bringing the end to 
us, but making us pass over and feel beneath our feet all the golden rounds of 
the ladder by which the climbing generations have reached that end; not 
handing us drily a dead and extinguished Q.E.D., but letting it rather declare 
itself by the gloiy with which it interfuses the incense-clouds of wonder and 
aspiration and beauty in which it is veiled. The secret of her power is typified 
in the mystery of the Real Presence. 

The passage bogs down a little in the neoclassic conventions of style 
that Lowell was beginning to affect. But his own "force of imagina- 
tion" had driven him to the heart of the experience and provided the 
language in which to expose it. The cumulative effect of the paragraph 
is to reveal religious experience (seen from the human side of it) as a 
gathering-together of those age-old energies of worship and belief 
which had gone into the celebration of the Eucharist for nineteen cen- 
turies. Lowell builds the religious experience out of the commonplace 
human experience of eating bread and drinking wine, and the more 
vivid experience of appreciative reading. In all cases, what he saw 
taking place was a vast individual enrichment through conscious par- 
ticipation in the full flow of history: the history of human actions, of 
language, of religious worship, as all that history is recovered in the in- 
dividual imagination. That, Lowell suggests, is the meaning of tradi- 
tion; to be related to a living tradition is to be touched and animated 
by those continuing energies. 

The relationship dramatized by Lowell was exactly the relationship 
Brownson was seeking to formulate in theological terms. He might 
not have understood Lowers later observation that the Roman 
church was the only poet among the churches, for he was tempera- 
mentally unequipped to follow Lowell's analogy between poetry and 
religion. Lowell's hint that the very words of an American poem tend- 
ed to be isolated and lonely would have escaped him. But Brownson 
knew that individual men in America were isolated and lonely, and he 
felt that the hopeful theology of his friend Parker served only to make 
them more so. Parker, he wrote, would have "turn[ed] men in utter 
nakedness out into this bleak and wintry world, to rely on themselves 

The American Adam 

alone and to support themselves as best they might from their own 
resources." Unlike Parker, Brownson did believe that the world was 
bleak and wintry and that a corrupted human nature had made it 
that way. The cure required a precise reversal of the Protestant 
achievement. It required the kind of enrichment Lowell described, by 
putting one's self in touch with the Real Presence through a willing 
involvement with the entire life of mankind, past and present. 

What the cure required, in fact, was communion: a communion 
with human history which made possible the communion with God 
celebrated in the Eucharist. This was Brownson's major discovery; 
but it may be doubted that he would have come to it without the chal- 
lenge of Parker's erect confidence in the individual man of the pres- 
ent hour. A recollection of that confidence may have been what saved 
Brownson, after his conversion, from lapsing into that dour and quasi- 
Calvinistic hopelessness so characteristic of Catholicism in America. 
Brownson absorbed into his religious vision something of the heretical 
jauntiness which his vision sought to moderate. Parker, it should be 
added, may have known as much; for having lent Brownson a part of 
his hopefulness, he sent after him his blessing. Observing the progress 
of his old friend, Parker remarked in 1843: "[Brownson] seems tending 
towards the Catholic Church. God bless him wherever he is! He has 
a hard head." It was the final word on the conversation from which 
both men had profited so greatly. 

In arriving at his doctrine of communion, Brownson not only gravi- 
tated toward the Catholic church. He simultaneously became a mem- 
ber of what I have called the party of Irony. For communion was the 
concern which, more than any other, linked together the varied mem- 
bers of the third party in the dialogue of the day. The idea found ex- 
pression in ways as different as Hawthorne's remark about opening 
"an intercourse with the world" and Dr. Holmes's image of ghostly 
assistance from a remote ancestor. But in all its forms, the preoccu- 
pation of the ironic mentality was communion with the common ex- 
perience and common reality of the human race. Hopefulness and 
nostalgia had conspired to cut the American spirit off from those 
crucial resources, with pathetic and potentially tragic consequences. 
For the hopeful, the situation was symbolized in Whitman's wistful 
envy of the live oak which could thrive in Louisiana, though it stood 
"alone there without a friend near"; the symbol for the nostalgic was 
the impulse of Clifford Pyncheon, in The House of the Seven Gables y to 
throw himself from the window of the old mansion into the midst of 
the crowd below. Communion, in every instance, was an answer to 


The Real Presence: Parker and Brownson 

both symbols by restoring the individual to a nourishing relation to 

Each member of the third party had his own notion about the lo- 
cation and the character of the community he belonged to. For the 
elder Henry James, it was society taken as the embodiment of a 
"divine-natural" humanity. Horace Bushnell looked to those inter- 
locking generations whose orderly march had created the pattern of 
educative forces that Bushnell identified as "tradition." For Haw- 
thorne, there were the moral influences and artistic prototypes press- 
ing down through the past, sources at once of repression and freedom. 
Melville came to terms with the world only after he had allied his 
genius to the disparate mythologies of Western literature. Experience, 
for Henry James the younger, was nothing else than the awareness of 
an achieved communion: man's apprehension of himself (as James 
put it) in his social being. Francis Parkman drew both strength and 
consolation from the historic experience of a more masculine age. 
And man's very chances for redemption rested, according to Orestes 
Brownson, upon his ability to commune with God by participating in 
the traditional life initiated by Christ and carried forward through 
time by the Christian church. 

And yet each of these men sympathized with that sense of things 
which made communion difficult and even, as it seemed, altogether 
unnecessary. With the possible but not certain exception of Parkman, 
they all partook a little of the hopeful belief in the newness, the sepa- 
rateness, the self-sufficiency, the lack of moral involvement, and hence 
the innocence of the representative figure in the New World. They re- 
sponded to the dangerous appeal of that figure. The party of Irony 
consisted of those men who wanted both to undermine and to bolster 
the image of the American as a new Adam. They urged their genera- 
tion toward a communion a renewal of contact with moral reality 
and the traditional past, as the way to extend the range of contempo- 
rary life and letters. But they did so in the name of those same human 
and artistic possibilities that the hopeful were proclaiming; their 
mode of communion, therefore, was inevitably a kind of creative tussle 
with its object. For the perspective of their irony was not limited to 
the present; it extended to the past as well, and it threw its ambiguous 
light upon the sense of evil as upon the feeling of innocence. Their 
irony, in short, was in the great tradition: inclusive and charitable, 
never restrictive. Their aim was to enlarge. The shared purpose of the 
party of Irony was not to destroy the hopes of the hopeful, but to 
perfect them. 

1 193 1 

The Contemporary Situation 

Adam as Hero in the 
Age of Containment 

AFRICAN thought and expression would not, in recent years, seem 
very hospitable to the moral and artistic sensibility of the nine- 
teenth-century party of Hope. The hopeful attitudes are phenomena, 
indeed, about which we are today somewhat embarrassed: the cul- 
ture's youthful indiscretions and extravagances. We have had to get 
beyond such simple-minded adolescent confidence, we suppose; we 
may even have got beyond the agonizing disillusion that unexamined 
confidence begets; and we sometimes congratulate ourselves austerely 
for having settled, like adults or Europeans, upon a course of pro- 
longed but tolerable hopelessness. We call that state of hopelessness 
the human condition: something we study to realize in our literature 
and reflect in our behavior. The picture of man sketched by the domi- 
nant contemporary philosophies and ologies shows us a figure strug- 
gling to stand upright amid the most violent cross-currents: the 
American as Adam has been replaced by the American as Laocoon; the 
Emersonian figure "the plain old Adam, the simple genuine self" 
has been frowned quite out of existence. 

The contemporary picture is not a dishonest one. It contains many 
remarkable and even irreversible psychological, sociological, and po- 
litical insights. It seems to be the picture most clearly warranted by 
public and private experience in our time. But it remains curiously 
frozen in outline; it is anything but dialectical and contains within it 
no opposite possibilities on which to feed and fatten. In it irony has 
withered into mere mordant skepticism. Irony is fertile and alive; the 
chilling skepticism of the mid-twentieth century represents one of the 
modes of death. The new hopelessness is, paradoxically, as simple- 
minded as innocence; and it is opposed only by that parody of hope 
which consists in an appeal for "positive thinking" a wilful return to 
innocence based upon a wilful ignorance, momentarily popular in the 
market place of culture but with no hold at all upon the known truth 
of experience. 

The doctrine of positive thinking is a posture that is, a substitute 
for morality. It need not be dignified by further consideration except 

1 197 1 

The American Adam 

to notice that its fraudulence, combined with its economic successes, 
has led to a still more extreme posturing of skepticism. That skepti- 
cism takes the form of a hostility to human nature as self-wounded 
and self-wounding beyond repair; something which began as a valu- 
able corrective to the claims of innocence in America and which has 
declined into a cult of original sin. It expresses itself, too, in a distrust 
of experience. Ours is an age of containment; we huddle together and 
shore up defenses; both our literature and our public conduct suggest 
that exposure to experience is certain to be fatal. The hopeful and the 
ironic of a century ago were willing to risk it: Emerson because he 
could imagine nothing harmful in the path of the self-reliant; Haw- 
thorne because of his passionate conviction that the fatalities of ex- 
perience were indispensable for moral maturity. Instead of looking 
forward to new possibilities, we direct our tired attention to the bur- 
den of history, observing repeatedly that it is later than you think. 

I do not suggest that, by pretending to a hopefulness we cannot 
possibly feel, we may add a number of cubits to our cultural stature. 
But I do suggest that recalling the moral and artistic adventurousness 
of a century ago may help release us a little from our current rigidity. 
There is, anyhow, some evidence to support such a hypothesis in re- 
cent American fiction. Most serious efforts at fiction in America have 
suffered, during the past few decades, from the two cardinal defects 
of the new hopelessness: from an antagonism to nature for the very 
language of literature evaporates when it loses faith in and hence 
touch with natural objects; and from a distrust of experience for 
fiction, as Lionel Trilling has said, imitates the will in action, and of 
late the will has become oddly disempowered and reluctant to initiate 
action. Yet there is, undoubtedly, an occasional vitality in American 
fiction. And wherever we find it, we encounter again traces of the 
hopeful or Adamic tradition, seen, as fiction must always see it, in a 
comic or ironic perspective by novelists who have escaped what I have 
called the arrested development of innocence and the premature old 
age of an absorption with sin. 

Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby^ for example, demonstrates once 
more the dramatic appeal of the hero as a self-created innocent. Fitz- 
gerald was right, despite Edith Wharton's stricture, not to give us any 
more of Gatsby's "background"; Mrs. Wharton argued that the 
tragedy was diminished because we know too little about Gatsby's 
origins, but the fact is that, as Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald's hero had no 
background. He had repudiated his former self, with its ancestry, as 
represented by his former name of James Gatz. And in his new role 

1 198 1 


he had (to use the phrase of Horace Bushnell) "just begun to be." 
That is what is acknowledged by the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, 
when he says about Gatsby that he "sprang from his Platonic concep- 
tion of himself." The legend of the second chance is thus poignantly 
re-enacted by Gatsby, as he carries forward his incorruptible dream 
beneath the surface of his guessed-at corruption. In The Great Gatsby , 
the Adamic anecdote retains a singular purity of outline; the young 
hero follows the traditional career from bright expectancy to the de- 
struction which, in American literature, has been its perennial reward. 
But the image of the New World as a second, last chance for humani- 
ty an image with which, in retrospect, the murdered Gatsby is as- 
sociated is subtly exploited by Fitzgerald as a mirror to reveal the 
true ugliness of society's hard malice and shallow sophistication. 

That image is what remains inviolable in The Great Gatsby. In Wil- 
liam Faulkner's The Bear, it is precisely what is transcended in an 
anger and a pity that give that novella its peculiar intensity. Faulkner's 
hero, Isaac McCaslin, knows about that hopeful legend and rehearses 
it for his cousin, Cass Edmonds, on his own twenty-first birthday. He 
knows, too, that the legend is false and that the New World began 
with its portion of historic, sinful inheritance. The knowledge protects 
him from the danger of innocence; but the memory of a lost hope sends 
him on a lifelong errand of private atonement for everything that had 
betrayed it. The notion of original innocence tantalizes Isaac's sensi- 
bility not less than the accepted fact of original sin. In The Bear, per- 
haps Faulkner's finest story, the hero's achievement of conscience and 
the author's achievement of drama both result from the application of 
imagination to old and familiar materials. Isaac is a Natty Bumppo 
re-created by the dark energies of a Hawthorne. 

And in most of what I take to be the truest and most fully engaged 
American fiction after the second war, the newborn or self-breeding 
or orphaned hero is plunged again and again, for his own good and for 
ours, into the spurious, disruptive rituals of the actual world. We may 
mention especially Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; J. D. Salinger's 
The Catcher in the Rye; and The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul 
Bellow novels in each of which the hero is willing, with marvelously 
inadequate equipment, to take on as much of the world as is available 
to him, without ever fully submitting to any of the world's determin- 
ing categories. Ellison's hero is a nameless Negro, Salinger's an un- 
stable adolescent, Bellow's an obliquely oriented Chicago Jew. But 
they share in their common aloneness that odd aura of moral priority 
over the waiting world which was a central ingredient in the Adamic 


The American Adam 

fictional tradition. Each of them struggles tirelessly, sometimes un- 
wittingly and often absurdly, to realize the full potentialities of the 
classic figure each represents: the Emersonian figure, "the simple 
genuine self against the whole world." Behind them stand their 
Adamic predecessors: Arthur Mervyn, Donatello, Redburn, Pierre, 
Billy Budd, Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Huck Finn, and all the 
others. Ellison is explicitly indebted to the circus vision of Melville 
and reproduces much of the Gothic scramblings of Charles Brockden 
Brown; Bellow is plainly recalling the slippery heroism of Huckleberry 
Finn. But these novelists are to be credited with an additional feat: 
that of engendering from within their work the hopeful and vulnerable 
sense of life that makes experience and so makes narrative action pos- 
sible. It is their aim to test that sense of life by irony and drama; but 
they must create it from within, since they can scarcely find it any 
longer in the historic world about them. 

These novelists do not, of course, write simply in order to keep 
alive some particular American tradition. Nor is it the tradition they 
are working in which accounts for their artistic accomplishment. But, 
taken together and along with a few others, the novels I mention do 
suggest the indestructible vitality of the Adamic vision of life and 
what that vision can contribute to the alchemical process of the nar- 
rative art. They suggest that the vision and the process which trans- 
forms it can, after all, continue to present us with the means of grasp- 
ing the special complexities, the buoyant assurance, and the encircling 
doubt of the still unfolding American scene. 

I 200 ^ 



Aaron, Daniel, 175 n. 

Aeschylus, 143 

Agassiz, Louis, 33 

Alcott, Bronson, 24, 45, 80, 179, 185, 

185 n. 

Allen, Paul, 95 n., 96 
Anderson, Quentin, 154, 154 n. 
Anderson, Sherwood, 84, 115 
Arnold, Matthew, 77, 143 
Arvin, Newton, 136, 147 
Auden, W. H., 79, 138, 147, 152 

Balzac, Honor6 de, 49 

Bancroft, George, 160, 161-65, 166, 174, 

176, 185 n. 

Bartram, William, 15 
Baudelaire, Charles, 140 
Beecher, Lyman, 30 n., 179 
Bellow, Saul, 199, 200 
Bentham, Jeremy, 164 
Berdyaev, Nikolai, 160 
Bird, Robert Montgomery, 86 n., 92, 105- 

9, 111, 112, 114, 166, 169; Ntck of the 

Woods, 86 n., 92, 105-9 
Blackmur, R. P., 147 
Blake, William, 140 
Boone, Daniel, 100, 108 
Boorstin, Daniel J., 15 n. 
Brisbane, Albert, 167, 185 n. 
Brown, Charles Brockden, 82, 92-98, 100, 

101, 102, 112, 113, 166, 200; Arthur 

Mervyn, 92-98 
Brownson, Orestes, 175, 177, 178, 183-89, 


Bryant, William Cullen, 77, 87-88 
Bucke, Dr. R. M., 46 
Burke, Kenneth, 98 n. 
Burroughs, John, 41, 47 
Bushnell, Horace, 54, 63, 64, 66-73, 91, 

122, 148, 155, 176, 193, 199; Christian 

Nurture, 67, 68, 69, 71; Nature and the 

Supernatural, 63, 67, 68, 70-73 

Calvin, John, 68 
Carlyle, Thomas, 59-60, 79 n. 
Channing, Edward Tyrell, 82-84, 85, 88, 


Channing, Ellery, 56 

Channing, Dr. William E., 30, 82, 82 n., 

179, 185 

Chauncy, Charles, 32, 42, 64 
Cheney, Mary Bushnell, 68 n. 
Cicero, 4 

Cochrane, C. N., 4 

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 24, 43, 68, 70 
Conrad, Joseph, 99, 128 
Cooper, James Fenimore, 85, 86 n., 87, 88, 

91, 92, 98-105, 106, 108, 111, 112, 113, 

114, 120, 127, 166, 168, 169, 187; The 

Deerslayer, 91, 102-5 
Crane, Hart, 4 n. 

Dana, R. H., Jr., 139, 167 

Dante, 48, 49, 131, 133, 144 

Democratic Review, 5, 7, 19-20, 40, 159, 


Dewey, John, 18 
Dickinson, Emily, 23 
Donne, John, 46 
Dostoevski, Feodor, 49 
Dreiser, Theodore, 86 n. 
Du Bellay, Joachim, 78 
Dunlap, William, 82, 95 n. 
Duyckinck, Everett, 81 

Edwards, Jonathan, 29, 43, 62, 63-66, 67, 
69, 71, 113, 115, 180; Great Christian 
Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, 62, 

Einstein, Albert, 56 

Eliot, Charles W., 37 

Eliot, T. S., 50, 78, 101, 121, 155 

Ellis, George A., 30-31, 32, 35 

Ellison, Ralph, 199, 200 

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 21, 
23, 24, 26, 29, 30, 35, 37, 40, 41, 42, 45, 
47, 55, 56, 57, 62, 68, 69, 70, 72, 77, 78, 
79, 80, 82, 83, 85, 88, 113, 119, 120, 
132 n., 139, 159, 161, 162, 175, 176, 178, 
179, 185, 197, 198 

Everett, Edward, 5, 8, 163, 164 

Faulkner, William, 86 n., 96, 97, 104, 127, 
129, 199; The Bear, 104, 199 

The American Adam 

Faust, Clarence, 30 n. 

Feidelson, Charles N., Jr., 68 n. 

Fergusson, Francis, 154n. 

Fichte, Johann, 180 

Fink, Mike, 86 n. 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 84, 198; The Great 

Gatsby, 198-99 
Fourier, Charles, 56, 71, 176 
Freeman, F. Baron, 127 n., 149 n. 
Freud, Sigmund, 26, 38, 39, 40, 56 
Frothingham, O. B., 180, 181 
Fuller, Margaret, 80, 185, 185 n. 

Gardiner, William Howard, 82, 85-86 
Gide, Andrei 18, 128 
Greeley, Horace, 176 
Greene, Graham, 128 
Griswold, Rufus, 79, 81 

Haroutinian, Joseph, 30 n. 

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 18, 
34, 35, 41, 43, 50, 56, 62, 65, 73, 83, 91, 
92, 95, 98 n., 105, 110-26, 129, 134, 137, 
147, 150, 151, 152, 154, 155, 161, 166, 
192, 193, 198, 199; 'The Artist of the 
Beautiful," 119; Dr. Grimshawe's Se- 
cret, 124; "Earth's Holocaust," 13-14, 
27, 113; The House of the Seven Gables, 
18-19, 88, 115, 124; The Marble Faun, 
6, 35, 114, 117, 120-26, 127; "The New 
Adam and Eve," 28, 41, 113; The Scar- 
let Letter, 111-14, 123 

Hecker, Isaac, 184-85, 185 n. 

Hedge, Frederick, 177 n., 179 

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 51, 161 

Hemingway, Ernest, 115 

Henry, Caleb Sprague, 176-77 

Hildreth, Richard, 163-64 

Holmes, Abiel, 33 

Holmes, Dr. Oliver Wendell, 16, 26, 29, 
32-41, 42, 43, 56, 62, 66, 82, 163, 170, 
192; Elsie Venner, 35-38; The Guardian 
Angel, 34, 35, 38-39 

Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr., 33 

Homer, 44; The Odyssey, 140-43, 146 

Howells, William Dean, 87 

Hyman, Stanley E., 25 n. 

James, Henry, Jr., 5 n., 6, 45, 49, 62, 73, 
84, 87, 91, 97, 101, 108, 120, 123, 127, 
147, 152-55, 193 

James, Henry, Sr., 6, 7, 13, 33, 54-63, 64, 
91, 126, 133, 154-55, 177, 193; Christi- 
anity the Logic of Creation, 59; Society 
the Redeemed Form of Man, 57-58, 154 

James, William, 56, 57, 60, 155 
Jefferson, Thomas, 15-16, 18, 19 
Joyce, James, 51, 61,78, 118 
Jung, Carl, 26, 38, 39, 40 

Kafka, Franz, 128 
Kant, Immanuel, 51, 180 

Lamarck, J. B., 32, 56 

Lawrence, D. H., 103, 104, 115, 122 

Lewis, Taylor, 176 

Lieber, Francis, 19 

Literary World, The, 19, 20, 81, 159 

Locke, John, 42, 63, 180 

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 79-80 

Loring, George B., 113 

Lovejoy, Arthur O., 61 n. 

Lowell, James Russell, 23-24, 30, 78, 80, 

81, 161, 175, 189-91, 192 
Luther, Martin, 178 

Madison, James, 16 

Mann, Thomas, 40, 120, 128, 140, 144; 
The Magic Mountain, 56, 144 

Marsh, James, 177 n. 

Marx, Karl, 54 

Matthiessen, F. O., 25 n. 

Mayhew, Jonathan, 32 ' 

Maynard, Theodore, 184 n. 

Mead, Sidney Earl, 30 n. 

Melville, Herman, 6, 8, 9, 13, 37, 38, 45, 
50, 55, 62, 73, 91, 92, 96, 99, 105, 110, 
119, 127-52, 166, 167, 193, 200; Billy 
Budd, 6, 130, 147-52; Clarel, 149; Moby- 
Dick, 83, 86 n., 109, 130, 131-32, 138- 
39, 145-46; Pierre, 96, 130, 148-49; 
Redburn, 130, 134, 136-38, 145; Typee, 

Miller, Arthur, 86 n. 

Miller, Perry, 2 n., 63 n. 

"Millerites," the, 14 

Munger, Theodore T., 68 n. 

Murray, Henry A., 149 

Newton, Isaac, 63 
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 134 
Norton, Andrews, 30, 42 

Oberndorf, Clarence P., 38 n. 

Paine, Thomas, 15 

Parker, Theodore, 30, 56, 176, 177-83, 

184, 185, 188, 189, 191, 192 
Parkman, Francis, 82, 92, 98-99, 102, 

107 n., 160, 165-73, 193 


Pascal, Blaise, 69 

Peabody, Elizabeth, 185 n. 

Phillips, Wendell, 179 

Plato, 1, 24, 42, 67 

Poe, Edgar Allan, 85, 102, 115 

Praz, Mario, 94, 94 n. 

Prescott, William, 8, 85, 160-61 

Rabelais, Francois, 178 
Racine, Jean, 78 
Radcliffe, Mrs. Ann, 98 
Ripley, George, 179, 185 n. 
Ronsard, Pierre, 78 

St. Augustine, 65, 163, 164 

St. Bonaventura, 174 

St. Paul, 22, 23, 31, 65, 183 

St. Thomas Aquinas, 144 

Salinger, J. D., 199 

Savonarola, 178 

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., 140 n. 

Shakespeare, William, 48, 49, 55, 68, 78, 


Simms, William Gilmore, 86 n. 
Skidmore, Thomas, 16-17 
Smith, Elihu Hubbard, 96 
Smith, Henry Nash, 100 n., 110 
Spirit of the Age, The, $5 
Stendhal, 78 
Strauss, David, 71, 180 
Stuart, Moses, 29, 30 
Swedenborg, Emanuel, 55, 56 

Tappan, Mrs. Caroline, 54 
Tate, Allen, 119, 120 
Taylor, Edward, 64 

Taylor, Nathaniel, 29, 30 

Thompson, Lawrence, 129 

1 horeau, Kenry David, 7, 14, 20-27, 29, 
37, 43, 45, 55, 56, 58, 82, 113, 119, 135, 
136, 139, 142, 161, 168, 178, 184; Wai- 
den, 14-15, 20-27, 28, 50, 103 

Tocqueville, Alexis de, 17-18, 43, 79, 88- 
89, 91, 105, 123, 159 

Trilling, Lionel, 83, 84, 198 

Twain, Mark, 86 n., 102 

Van Doren, Mark, 113n., 130 
Virgil, 4, 5 

Ware, Henry, 32 

Warfel, Harry R., 95 n. 

Warren, Robert Penn, 86 n. 

Watson, E. L. G., 147 

Webster, Noah, 5, 45, 72 

Weinberg, A. K., 18 n. 

Wells, Ronald V., 177 n. 

Welty, Eudora, 86 n. 

Wharton, Edith, 198 

Whitman, Walt, 4, 7, 9, 20, 22, 28, 29, 33, 
35, 41-53, 54, 57, 79, 86, 91, 161, 163, 
192; 'Democratic Vistas, 24, 45, 52; 
Leaves oj Grass, 4, 28, 41-53, 54, 57, 103 

Wilkinson, Garth, 60 

Williams, Roger, 165 

Willis, N. P., 68 

Winters, Yvor, 102 

Wordsworth, William, 26 

Wright, Fanny, 167 

Yeats, William Butler, 78, 129 
Zabel, Morton D., 128, 129